Proper 29 • Matthew 25:31–46 • November 20, 2011
by Joel Biermann
This is a difficult text. Not that it is difficult to understand. In fact, it is altogether too easy to grasp the meaning, which is precisely what makes it difficult. There is no question about the message Jesus intends to convey with this poignant parable. There is no dodging the impact of the message with claims of obscurity or interpretative uncertainty. The text is clear and confronts us with the unsettling reality that if this were all we had of Jesus’s teaching, we would be consigned to a religion of work-righteousness. But we do have more, and the context provided by that further teaching provides a legitimate solution to the dilemma of this text. The peril facing contemporary preachers striving for doctrinal fidelity is to over-correct the works-righteous trajectory of Jesus’s teaching, and so eviscerate the text of its substance and blunt its sharp barbs.
The solution to the apparent bind is to discern the cause for the separation of sheep from goat (the only categories into which people are placed). The standard is not human performance. The criteria of judgment lie well beyond the actions of sheep or goat. The distinction was fixed “from the foundation of the world.” The sheep are the elect, chosen by God. They do nothing to lay claim on their place at Jesus’s right hand. They are righteous by grace in Christ. For the goats, the accursed, there is no mention of a place prepared from eternity. Indeed, so unusual and unexpected is their fate, that they are consigned to a place not prepared for them—a place called into existence only out of necessity. Condemnation was not the plan of the Creator.
Before getting to the business at hand—how one might preach this text faithfully—one other point deserves attention. Neither goat nor sheep was aware of the presence of Jesus hidden in the form of “the least of these.” Ignorance on the part of goats is no surprise, but that the sheep have no awareness of Jesus lurking behind the neighbor should give us pause. One hears routinely about “serving Jesus” by doing deeds of kindness in the world. And so pious justification and motivation is provided for any number of possible social welfare activities in and through the church: from building houses in Mexico, to raking the widow’s leaves—it’s all done “for Jesus.” Popular piety and exegesis notwithstanding, our text does not support but actually contradicts this mindset. One serves the neighbor only for the sake of the neighbor; the single motivation necessary is the need of the neighbor. Sheep serve because they love their neighbor for his own sake, not because they perceive Jesus standing over the neighbor’s shoulder. So oblivious are they of the connection between their deeds of service and their relationship to God through faith that it must be spelled out for them by their Lord. Yes, it is the distinction between the two kinds of righteousness.
Arriving at some practical points of application, two thoughts should stand out for the preacher (who should preach the text as written and not a sanitized version). First, Jesus expects his people to act like his people. Sheep take care of their neighbors. There is an expectation, even an obligation, for Christians to serve those in need (and not Jesus!), and this has nothing to do with election or salvation. The elect simply act like the elect. There is no room for complacency or apathy excused by misapplied or misunderstood gospel. Second, Christians can find remarkable comfort and encouragement in the reality that no deed of service, regardless how obscure, insignificant, or unappreciated is ever wasted or lost. Jesus keeps track.
Goal: To exhort Christ’s sheep to be busy in doing good works for the neighbor.
Malady: Even sheep can become complacent and direct their efforts in the wrong directions (working “at church” may well interfere with a sheep’s proper work as defined by her vocation).
Means: The Good Shepherd who elects and calls his sheep and separates them from the goats, showed us throughout his earthly ministry how to treat others—both sheep and goats.