First Lesson: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
Responsive Reading: Psalm 100
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1: 15-23
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 25: 31-46
Sheep, Goats and Shorty
By Kent Shamblin
Peace and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The text for today’s sermon is the gospel reading for this Sunday: Matthew 25:31-46.
You just heard the parable of the sheep and the goats. This was the third of three parables in this section of Matthew in which Jesus spoke of His Second Coming. In the last two Sundays, Pastor Stew preached on the first and second parables. The first parable was about the foolish virgins, the second parable was that of the talents—the servants awaiting the return of their master, and now, today, the parable of the sheep and goats.
All three illustrate the vigilant and expectant attitude of faith.
But first, I want to tell you about Shorty.
I’ve spoken to you before about the small western Oklahoma town where I grew up—Erick--a windy, dusty farming community with an abundance of Protestant churches. In Erick when I was a lad we had one Republican. Yes--my home state has since become the reddest state in the country--but back then Shorty was a rarity.
Shorty had never married. Shorty had almost no friends. But my dad liked to debate politics with Shorty--mainly because dad’s political enthusiasm had worn out his welcome with everyone else--most especially my mother. Since I went along with my dad whenever he went to the main—actually the only—coffee shop in town—where he’d sit with Shorty if he was there--and because grown up talk did not yet bore me, I soon knew Shorty pretty well.
One day my dad and Shorty got to talking religion. Shorty was a true believer. Assembly of God, I think. And he believed in salvation through faith alone. Which dad did as well, however, Shorty also rejected good works. He didn’t need any favors—fortunately, since few if any people were inclined to give him any—and he had zero interest in helping others. Wasn’t necessary for salvation so why put yourself out?
Today’s gospel lesson—the parable of the sheep and goats—could mistakenly be taken to not just contradict Shorty’s view—but to put faith second to good works.
Jesus is addressing the good sheep--saying that whatever they did for one of the least of his people, they’d done for Him. And then he addresses the cursed goats—condemning them to eternal fire—because what they did not do for one of the least of His people, they did not do for Him. And the goats go away to eternal punishment but the righteous sheep to eternal life.
A casual reading of this text could suggest that salvation is the result of good works. The “sheep” acted charitably, giving food, drink, and clothing to the needy. The “goats” showed no charity. This seems to result in salvation for the sheep and damnation for the goats.
However, Scripture does not contradict itself, and the Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches that salvation is by faith through the grace of God and not by good works. In fact, Jesus makes it clear in this parable that the salvation of the “sheep” is not based on their works—their inheritance was theirs “since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34), long before they could ever do any good works!
Actually this parable deals not with serving the poor but in receiving the gospel’s messengers. So there is damnation of people who did not actively embrace the messengers of the gospel and were oblivious to how they offended God.
In the context of the surrounding parables, welcoming Christ's messengers probably involves more than only initially embracing the message of the kingdom: it means treating one's fellow servants properly. Unless we "receive" one another in God's household, we in some way reject Christ whose representatives our fellow disciples are.
As Christians we are called to become like Christ unto our neighbors. Good works are a necessity if we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Good works are not about us. Good works are about those around us.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Good works in a Christian’s life are the direct overflow of these traits, and are only acceptable to God because of the relationship that exists between servant and Master, the saved and their Savior, the sheep and their Shepherd.
The core message of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is that God’s people will love others. Good works will result from our relationship to the Shepherd. Followers of Christ will treat others with kindness, serving them as if they were serving Christ Himself. The ungodly live in the opposite manner. While “goats” can indeed perform acts of kindness and charity, their hearts are not right with God, and their actions are not for the right purpose – to honor and worship God.
Justification is the doctrine that God pardons, accepts, and declares a sinner to be "just" on the basis of Christ's righteousness which results in God's peace, and salvation. Justification is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ apart from all works and merit of the sinner. We do not earn this justification. It is God’s free gift. Justification is a divine act whereby pardon is bestowed on the undeserving.
Lutherans believe that trust in Jesus is necessary for salvation. We understand that such trust is the work of God the Holy Spirit working through the Scriptures and the Sacraments to create such faith. We understand that simple trust in the promises of God, in Jesus Christ, are sufficient to secure an individual's salvation. This gives rise to the Lutheran phrase of "Faith Alone."
Martin Luther struggled with the Gospel as the revelation of the justice of God. He had been taught in the Roman Catholic church that this refers to the punishment of sinners. He knew he was a sinner. He despaired that he could never be right with God. He tried in many ways to get right with God. He slept on hard floors, fasted, went to a monastery, and tried good works. Nothing worked. Luther could not find peace with God.
But after much study of the gospels, he came to the realization that the righteousness or justice of God is given freely by God to those who live by faith.
This is not a punitive justice that condemns sinners. And righteousness is not given because we are righteous or because we fulfill some standard of divine justice. It is given simply because God wants to give it to us. Thus Luther’s justification—the forgiveness of sin—our salvation by faith alone--does not mean that what God demands of us is faith--as if this is something we have to do or achieve--and which God then rewards. It rather means that faith and justification are the work of God—a free gift to we sinners.
Justification by faith—God’s forgiveness—does not mean that God is indifferent to sin. God is holy. Sin is repugnant to holiness. But God forgives. So a Christian is at one and the same time both sinful and justified—saved.
But that’s not all of it. What about Shorty’s belief that good works don’t matter?
The answer, I think, can be found in James, 2nd chapter:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, writes James, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Unless faith produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
I think there is a Godly urge in us to help others. We read about the heroic---such as the health workers volunteering for Ebola care in Africa—and we read about the wealthy givers like Bill Gates helping millions of people and we may think what we can do is pretty puny.
I don’t think so. I believe that the best each of us can manage to do with our particular time—talent—and treasure—is significant. The widow’s mite is just as important as Bill Gates’ billions.
Look at what goes on here at Sychar. This is a caring congregation. We care about each other. We care about people in our community outside Sychar. We care about a church in Belize and a school mission in China.
No matter how short any one of us is in time—in talent—in treasure—we each have something we can give; an encouraging word to someone in despair, help to a neighbor, volunteer work in our communities.
Maybe many of us worry too much about the quality of our faith. That it is not strong enough—not truly faithful enough. We tend to forget that it is Jesus Christ who saves by gracing us with faith alone.
There’s a passage in the 13th chapter of Hebrews, verse eight, that says this well. You’ll recognize the words from a hymn we sing often:
My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.