Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46.
Brothers, “… ‘Truly I say to you, as much as you did it for one of these least brothers of mine, you did it for me’…” (v. 40).
The two previous Sunday Gospels, the Ten Wise and Foolish Maidens and the Insouciant Manager of Jesus’ Talent, were directed to the church, that we might remain alert and attentive to the Lord’s Word and coming Parousia. Those Sunday hymns warned in counterpoint, “Wake, awake, for night is flying” and “The day is surely drawing near”.
But this, the church’s Last Sunday, Jesus’ audience is universal, the nations, believers and unbelievers, gathered before the glorified Son of Man (Mt. 25:31, 32).
Unfortunately, the King’s words are too often preached as a catalogue of societal “good works” attending salvific faith: feed the hungry and thirsty, hospitality to strangers, clothe the impoverished, care for the infirmed and visit prisoners.
To be sure, Christians participate in “social-ministry” according to Jesus’ command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39); but not today! Societal endeavors, whatever they may be, have no direct bearing on the Lord’s separation of sheep from goats.
Final judgment is consequent of Jesus’ “Great Commission” to his Apostles, who are the nucleus of his NT church; to them he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the [Triune Name], teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:18-20).
So, when on this occasion of the Last Day Jesus says to his sheep, “as you did it for one of these least brothers of mine, you did it for me”, to whom does he refer as his brothers? Certainly, not his “righteous” (25:37) sheep; after all they are his audience!
Rather, on the Last Day, Jesus, the Shepherd of the sheep, will direct them to those faithful “sent-brothers” who proclaimed and taught his gospel reign in the nations.
As the sacrificial character of following Jesus clarified, Peter, not thrilled with delayed gratification, complained, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you, what then shall we have?” Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt. 19:28). Today’s Gospel prophesy of final judgment speaks to that promise’s fulfillment.
In the Resurrection’s first instance, Jesus’ “brothers” are his “Sent Ones”, the Apostles; and after them, those faithful in authority, to whom the “apostolic” church is bound. In the course of sending his “brothers” for preaching and teaching his kingdom reign, Jesus says, “He who hears you hears me” (Lk. 10:16), and “lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Today’s Gospel announces the coming “close of the age”. Thus, those who receive his “sent brothers” in their midst, are now identified to be his “righteous” sheep (Mt. 25:37), “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (25:35, 36, 40).
The goats on Jesus’ left are confused about their separation; after all, many have lived lives as paragons of good works; manning soup kitchens, welcome-wagon volunteers, clothing and food bank contributors, hospice workers, and visiting inmate relatives; all well and good, some, perhaps many, who engage in these activities are sheep; but not on account of social ministry!
Call Jesus what you will, “Lord”, “Master”, “King”; still on the Last Day he calls us for what we are according to faith’s desire, or the lack: “sent ones”, “sheep”, “goats”, “good or faithless servants”, “wicked and slothful servants”; “wise or foolish maidens”.
This is the church’s final annual lesson; and so, an opportunity for reflection on our advance or decline in faith’s walk. Like the “end of time sheep”, you may not have noticed much, if any, change in your life.
But, Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day, your faithful attendance for attaining heaven’s Treasure; the Maiden’s oil that anticipates the Lord’s coming, and the faithful servants’ management of his talents delivered by the Lord’s “sent-brothers”, reveals your Shepherd’s righteousness to which you are being conformed in Spirit and in Truth.
Such is the imperceptible working of law and gospel for our being “salt” and “light” in the world. God does not work in his creation except as he employs the things of creation. We call this, his “means of grace”, ultimately expressed by the Incarnation; that the Son of God took into himself human flesh to dwell with men in sacrificial love for the forgiveness of sin.
As a result, Jesus’ sheep receive his “sent brothers” who in their commitment to the gospel, from time-to-time, experience rejection, privation, illness, even imprisonment. One’s advance or decline in faith, as with the Five Wise Maidens, reflect attention given purveyors of the Lord’s oil, his pastors and teachers.
Of the two thieves at Jesus’ crucifixion, one on his right the other on his left, both were worthy of death. By revelation, the thief on Jesus’ right discerned the means of his escape, God’s gracious reign in Jesus’ sacrificial death; saved by faith in Jesus’ promise alone (Luke 23:39-43). By the flow of water and blood on Jesus’ death, that thief received Baptism’s purification for entrance into Christ’s kingdom that day.
Neither you nor I, possess the wherewithal to God pleasing works, so social-ministry hardly justifies us; rather by grace we gladly receive and desire more and more of what Jesus delivers through his “sent brothers”; or not.
The Baptized, are Christophers, Christ-bearers, who share His cruciform love, because the weight of it belongs to Him alone (Mt. 11:29, 30). By being yoked with Jesus, God is magnified in the world, as in Noah’s day coming to its end, and now being made new in Christ. In Christ you have been given eyes that see and ears that hear to discern the new creation coming into being.
In Christ you too are the means by which God conveys his love that draws men to his saving Word. You cannot do otherwise; it is who you now are, in the growing likeness of your Lord, even if you hardly notice the change.
Do not ignore the gifts of the Spirit with which you are blessed for love of neighbor, especially brothers and sisters in Christ; after all we are justified, not by, but unto good works. Amen.