13. November 2022
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
The necessity of categorization is learned from our youth. The child learns to distinguish between mom and dad, boy and girl, black and white, square and round, bitter and sweet, and hot and cold. Making these categorical distinctions is necessary to function in a sane, orderly world. If we allow these categories of sense and reason to be confused or obliterated, we also destroy the ability of people to live together in peace and harmony.
In the meantime, we also invent categorical distinctions that are neither real nor true. This past week, our nation sorted itself out into artificial and superficial categories of elephant and donkey, red and blue. Most of what distinguishes these political categories is chosen for optics and, worse, the destruction of family, society, and church. And if you live outside the team sport set up by the shared ruling class, you’re isolated and demonized.
From our childhood, we are programmed to apply categorical distinctions to everything. That tendency is manipulated to see made-up categories, to separate us from one another, to set families at odds, to push communities into hostility, and coerce states and nations into war.
The categorical distinction one must make to be a reasonable, sensible person is between truth and falsehood. No one has an exclusive claim on the truth. According to Scripture, everyone lies and does so for their gain. All the ways we divide, exclude, separate, and alienate one another prove that we don’t care about the truth, only what enriches our accounts and gets what our sinful flesh wants. We only care about what is true or false as it makes us comfortable and in control.
Only one can judge with equity and whose verdict is always good, right, and trustworthy. The only one whom the Father has authorized to judge eternally and who once and again stands upon the earth is Jesus Christ. As the Psalmist has given us to sing, “When my enemies turn back, They shall fall and perish at Your presence. For You have maintained my right and my cause; You sat on the throne judging in righteousness. You have rebuked the nations, You have destroyed the wicked; You have blotted out their name forever and ever” (Psalm 9:3-8).
What does it mean that Christ judges in righteousness? How does Jesus distinguish His people and His enemies? How does Jesus determine who is righteous and who is wicked? How does He separate the sheep from the goats? He says, “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me… Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
There you have it, straight up and undiluted from Jesus. Righteous people do righteous things. Do you want to be a sheep? Then feed the hungry and work at the Interfaith Food Pantry. Make sure everyone can access clean drinking water by digging wells and installing filters. Take the homeless or illegal immigrant into your home. Buy coats for all the needy kids in our community this winter. Start delivering meals and medicine to the sick. Get visitation privileges at the jails and prisons and befriend the convicts. Do this, and you will be righteous and saved.
If that were the whole story, then Jesus would contradict Himself. He expressly states to the metaphorical sheep and goats that neither knew nor recognized what they were doing. The danger of identifying your “good works” is that you immediately take credit for them. It is no longer Christ who saves you, but you save yourself. And also, who has done as Jesus said? Who has measured up to the standard of righteousness He declares will be true of the sheep and not the goats?
Nothing is particularly Christian about feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the sojourner, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, or befriending the convict. To a greater or lesser degree, every religious tradition that has persisted agrees. All social justice institutions have these efforts at the core of their agenda. Even a Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist says these are the aims of their political movements. Love your neighbor as yourself is the natural law written on every human heart. You didn’t need Jesus to tell you to do those things. All creation is responsible for loving one another by God the Father.
Thus, it’s entirely natural for sinners to take a revelation from Jesus, who proclaims the faithful and gracious saving work of Jesus, and turn it into a morality tale, self-improvement project, or path for self-redemption. We want to distinguish ourselves as righteous, virtuous people and separate ourselves from those pagans and heathens who often are just as moral and honest by human estimation.
This is why we delight in the newsreels about scumbags getting what’s coming to them, the corrupt finally getting wrapped up and perp-walked, or the scandals of the rich and famous. We are looking to justify our unrighteousness but the enormity of theirs. We want to separate the sheep from the goats now and without Jesus. But Jesus is explicit: No one knows anything. They can’t point to their works because they don’t see them. They can’t point to their identity as sheep or goats because only the Shepherd can do that.
So what is Jesus talking about if the talk about good works is a big red herring, as the whole Scriptures and totality of Jesus’ catechesis affirm? Let’s end with a few things you can chew on today and throughout the week. No scrap of creation, Jew or Gentile, good, bad, or indifferent, is left out of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lays down His life for all the world, sheep and goats. The mystery of His kingdom will be revealed, but not until the last day. For now, it is hidden, but then all His work to bring in the last, the least, and the lost will be known. Jesus is already victorious but won’t be seen until the final day.
So, what can we know now? The Gospel of the Sheep and the Goats shows us the only distinguishing thing between sheep and goats. How does the Shepherd alone separate them? Everything depends on your relationship with Jesus, what the Scripture calls faith. Goodness and badness aren’t obstacles to Christ’s kingdom. Unreformed people like the prodigal son and the tax collector are brought in by faith, not works. Jesus himself goes out to bring both the bad and the good into the wedding feast.
The only separation is on account of our Shepherd’s goodness. Everything necessary and needed for the kingdom is His gift to the good and evil, Jew and Gentile, sheep or goat. He forgives, redeems, renews, sanctifies, and keeps them without merit, worthiness, or work. The only thing that can keep you from Christ’s kingdom is your unbelief. And even that, Jesus has already overcome. He died for you. He forgives you. You are His. You’ve been baptized, absolved, and fed. Stop trusting your experience. Stop distinguishing what only God knows. Stop separating yourself from those whom Jesus has died. The only proper response is to say again, “Amen! I believe. Help my unbelief.”
If anybody can sort it all out, Jesus can. If He can’t, nobody else ever will. Trust Him, therefore. And trust Him now. There is nothing more to do. And Jesus will say, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin