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"The Day Is Surely Drawing Near"
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
When we hear the Gospel reading for today, our natural reaction is to take it as a set of guidelines for what we should be doing to get into heaven. The sheep who did good works for Jesus go into everlasting life, while the goats who didn't do good works for Jesus go into everlasting torment. And so we say to ourselves, "Well, if I want to be on the sheep side, I'd better get on the ball and do some more charitable deeds so that I'm counted worthy to have eternal life."
It is a constant temptation for us to take the Word of God and turn it into a list of requirements that we can complete so that we can make ourselves right with God. And so we keep looking for spiritual checklists that we can fulfill: feed the hungry; give clothing to the poor; visit the sick. There, I've done my duty; now I've made myself a candidate for heaven.
But that isn't putting your faith in Christ; that's putting your faith in yourself. That's not relying on God's goodness and love, that's relying on your own goodness and love. And to do that is contrary to Christianity. Now let me be clear: we should be helping those in need and doing works of mercy toward our neighbor. The Fifth Commandment requires that we help our neighbor in every bodily need, that we don't ignore him or "pass by on the other side." But the Commandments are God's Law. And we shouldn't rely on the Law to save us, for the Law always brings judgment. Even your best efforts to show love to your neighbor fall short. Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
In our attempts to keep the Law, we often forget the first and most important commandment: that we are to love and trust in God above all things. If you are doing good works in order to gain eternal life for yourself, is that really loving God or loving yourself? If you do deeds of charity so that you can feel like you've fulfilled your spiritual responsibility, is that really trusting in God, or is that an attempt to pull God's strings to get where you want to be? Don't take today's Gospel reading as a listing of the things you've got to do to earn your own spot at Jesus' right hand. For that is precisely the attitude of those on His left. "When did we see you in need, Jesus? If we had known it was you, we certainly would have fulfilled your requirements and helped you out."
On the Last Day, Jesus will sit on the throne of His glory. With indescribable majesty, He will take His place as King of the universe to judge mankind. "And He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats." Notice that the separation, the judgment on the Last Day is not based on what you have done or left undone, but on what you are. Are you a believing sheep of the Good Shepherd's flock? Then you go to the right. Are you an unbelieving goat? Then you go to the left. What you are determines where you go, whether to the right hand and everlasting life with Christ or to the left and the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his minions.
Jesus commends the works of the sheep. "I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a foreigner and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Now these works do not save the sheep. Jesus is not giving reasons here why the sheep are going to heaven. For there are plenty of unbelievers who also feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and come to visit those in prison. So what is the difference between the good works of the sheep and the good works of the goats? The difference is that the works of the sheep are cleansed and sanctified by Christ through their faith in Him, while the works of the goats are not. Christ receives good works done in faith as works done for Him. "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me." In other words, Jesus not only declares us righteous, He declares our works righteous, too, and receives them as gifts. It is written, "Without faith (in Christ) it is impossible to please God." Apart from faith in Jesus' forgiveness, our works remain stained and corrupted. Even our very best good deeds are nothing but filth before God. Only through Christ can we do anything that is truly good in God's sight.
Note that Jesus specifically mentions that these deeds done for Him are done for His brethren. "Brethren" is a very particular term in the Scriptures. It doesn't just mean anybody and everybody. The early church fathers took the term "brethren" in this passage to be referring to preachers, Jesus' brethren who stand in His place and speak His words to His people. Therefore this passage is talking at least in part about supporting the ministry of the Gospel, as you do with your offerings, and caring for the needs of those who are called to carry the good news of Jesus' to the nations, especially if they are poor or persecuted or imprisoned as was the Apostle Paul. To do that even for the least of the brethren, even the lowliest of missionaries and ministers, is to do it for Jesus who sent them. It is to show forth faith, which desires to hear the living voice of Christ in the preaching of the Gospel.
The term "brethren" can also refer to all Christians in general, the family of believers, those who have been made to be brothers and sisters of Christ through their baptism into Him. Those who are baptized are members of Jesus' body. So to do something for them is to do it for Jesus Himself. This oneness with Christ is renewed and strengthened each time we are fed with His very body and blood in Holy Communion. When you relate with each other, then, you're dealing not just with a motley assortment of people but with the body and blood of Christ. "Whatever you did for one of the least of these My brethren you did for Me."
Now the odd thing in the Gospel is that the sheep on the right
hand seem blissfully unaware that they did these things. But
they would be familiar with these words of Jesus in today's Gospel, just
as we are. You'd think they'd remember their good deeds for the least of
these. But that's not how faith operates. It doesn't keep a
record of good works, it just does them. Faith is by its very nature
active in love, without being commanded, without thinking about it.
The very best deeds you've done are the ones you've forgotten about or
that you weren't even aware that you did. The character of Christian
good works is such that they become better and better the less you are
aware of them.
Our Lord Jesus won those gifts for you by becoming needy in your place. He was weak and hungry when He was tested in the wilderness. On the cross He hung without clothing and said, "I thirst." He Himself took your infirmities and bore your sicknesses in His own body on the tree. He was treated like a stranger amongst His own people. He put Himself into the bondage of your hellish prison so that He might burst the bars of your captivity from the inside out by His mighty resurrection. Through Christ you are set free from death and the devil; you are released from your sins; you are cleansed and forgiven in Him. He made Himself to be the least of the brethren so that you might receive the greatest of His mercies. It is He who showed the truest and highest charity, paying with His own blood to redeem you.
That's how you receive the eternal inheritance. It was prepared for you even before you existed, from the very foundation of the world. For it is written that Jesus the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. You didn't earn it; it's all a gift, given to you through the merits of Christ.
Let us never forget, then, that the separation of the sheep and the goats occurs at the cross. That's where destinies are decided. It was a goat who was crucified at Jesus' left, one who mocked Him and didn't believe. But crucified on Jesus' right was a sheep who prayed in faith, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And Jesus said to him, "Today, you will be with Me in paradise." Brothers and sisters of Christ, you are at Jesus' right hand. For you were adopted into the family of God by water and the Word. All that the Father has is yours. And so you also are given to pray to the risen Jesus, "Remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And Jesus responds by giving you the Paradise of His own body and blood, where you are with Him and He is with you. He says to you even now, "Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
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