Pastor's Message

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Matthew 25:31-46                                                                              25th/26th November, 2017

by Pastor Stephen Schultz

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

This would have to be one of the more difficult texts to preach on. Any text that has an underlying theme of judgment is never easy. It is one thing to cover a text like this to those who have been brought up in the church and are firmly entrenched in the faith. We understand there are some difficult passages in Scripture for us to wrestle with. But what about those who are not so familiar with Christianity? How do they hear a text like this one?

The image is that of judgment day at the end of time. The Son of Man (Jesus) is seated on his throne and is about to deliver his verdict on all the nations gathered before him. This is not a general judgment on the actions of a particular nation like you hear in other parts of the Bible. This is a specific sorting of all people from within those nations.

And they are sorted into two groups. Some are placed on the right of Jesus and others are placed on his left. They are referred to as sheep and goats.

Don’t read too much into that distinction at this point. If you call someone a ‘goat’ these days it is not usually complimentary. But there was no such bias against goats in Scripture before this text in Matthew. In fact, sheep and goats were considered to be pretty much interchangeable. Even the Passover Lamb could be taken from either a sheep or a goat (Exodus 12:5).

At this stage in the parable no one is any wiser about the fate of the groups. When the judgment on the sheep and the goats is announced it appears to be based on what acts of charity have been enacted toward others or not.

Ironically it is Christians who have more problems with this text than non-Christians. The reason? At first glance faith doesn’t appear to come into it.

Most Christians will say how important it is to believe that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins and that he rose again from the dead. It is a major stumbling block to those who don’t see faith in Jesus as relevant or necessary to their lives. The contrary belief is that you only need to live a good life and be a good person. This parable would seem to support that!

The account of the sheep and the goats appears to be about acts of kindness – and pretty simple ones at that! You’d have to say that most people, apart from the really bad eggs, will give a drink to someone who is thirsty and food to someone who is hungry – if it is within their means to do so.

One commentator on this text has suggested that it is ‘a picture of how common kindness will affect our standing in the eternal world’.

So if you are not sold on the whole God idea but still believe in an after-life, then this system seems to suggest you can still qualify for it as long as your good deeds outweigh the bad. Faith doesn’t have to come into the equation.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. The first is that it goes against the understanding of salvation that is taught elsewhere in the Bible, like when the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians: ‘it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast’ (2:8-9).

Some biblical scholars have tried to get around it by saying this ‘sheep and goats’ parable is like a second chance. If you have faith in Jesus then you go straight on through with no questions asked. If you don’t then you get to go through this process where you are now assessed according to your actions.

I’m not too sure this idea has much support elsewhere in Scripture. If you can get in on this technicality then why bother sending Jesus to die for sins?

The second problem is that it is still not clear how the distinction is being made between the sheep and the goats. It is pretty obvious that those in the ‘goat’ camp are extremely surprised at the judgment that is passed on them. They did not see it coming. They were not prepared for it.

I also get the impression their surprise is heightened because they don’t actually think they have been all that bad. They have probably engaged in plenty of those acts of charity through the course of their lives and they are wondering why they haven’t counted for anything.

We need clarity on how the distinction is being made because it will impact on the message we end up proclaiming as a church. That is the critical thing here! This parable is not first and foremost being spoken to those outside of the church. It is not a warning to everyone out there that they had better make sure they lift their game or they could miss out on eternal life.

I think this is a message to the church to lift its game. Jesus did not tell this parable to the crowds like he did with many of his other parables and teachings – like the Sermon on the Mount for example.

At the start of this bracket of teaching, which covers lots of things associated with the end times, we are told the disciples came privately to Jesus while he was sitting on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3). It was a message initially intended for their ears only and, by extension, for the ears of the future followers of Jesus who would make up his church.

Through this teaching and these parables Jesus tells his disciples that the end of time, judgment day, will come upon them without warning. They are not to think that their status as his followers will give them any ‘heads up’ advantage on the timing of the end. It will surprise them like everyone else. So they need to keep watch and be prepared so they aren’t caught out.

So it is they are told a parable about ten young virgins with their lamps of oil who are waiting for the bridegroom to come. Five are ready with their oil and five are not. Then there is the parable about the talents where three servants were entrusted with the possessions of their master. Two put them to work and the other is caught out by burying it in the ground.

The followers of Jesus are being encouraged to live faithful lives, eagerly anticipating the return of Jesus and being fruitful as they wait.

The reason for doing so is not so much to ensure their place in God’s kingdom. That is assured through their faith in Christ. No, there is so much more at stake when it comes to the responsibility of the church in the way it conducts itself in the last days, in the period before the return of Jesus.

The concluding parable, the last in Matthew’s Gospel account, is this one on the sheep and the goats and it makes it very clear what is at stake. The fate of the nations and all the people in them is what is on the line.

One of the tasks of the followers of Jesus, the tasks of the church, is to ensure that no one is caught out on judgment day; that no one finds themselves standing before that throne of God under false pretences.

If we give people the impression that all that matters is that you are essentially a good person doing your best to live a good life then we have failed in our duty. I do not believe that my good deeds will get me into heaven so why should I believe that it will be enough for anyone else?

Do I want people to live good lives? Sure I do. I like it when I get feedback from others about how polite my boys have been to them. I like to think we have brought our boys up proper – with good manners; willing to help others. But more than anything else I want my boys to have faith in Jesus. It is faith in Jesus that gives assurance of salvation, not faith in yourself.

In the parable it is not the works that are done or not done that determine the fate of the sheep or the goats – it is their relationship to the Son of Man, to Jesus. Their actions are judged according to their relationship to Jesus. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these you did it for me’; ‘whatever you did not do for the least of these you did not do for me’.

Judgment day is not the first time the ‘sheep’ are issued with the invitation to ‘come’ – ‘come, you who are blessed by my Father’. In Matthew’s account this invitation to ‘come’ refers to a pre-existing relationship with Jesus.

It was issued to the disciples when Jesus said: ‘Come, follow me’ (4:19). It was issued again when Jesus said: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (11:28). It was issued in the one parable about the wedding feast for the son of the king: ‘Come to the wedding banquet’ (22:4). And finally it was issued by the angels to the women at the open and empty tomb: ‘Come and see the place where he lay’ (28:6).

The church is tasked with issuing that invitation to come to Jesus. And we issue it over and over again. We want people to come to Jesus as their Saviour before they come to him as their judge.

And that can happen even at the eleventh hour. There is one other time in Matthew’s account where some people are situated on either side of Jesus. When they hung Jesus on the cross: ‘two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left’ (Matthew 27:38).  

One of them placed his trust in Jesus and asked him to remember him. And Jesus said: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:42-43). Jesus wants his church to tell the world that he does not want to catch any one out. He wants to welcome all people home. Amen.


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