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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them”

Last Sunday of the Church Year


“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. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.


“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes, and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’


“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’


“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’


“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’


They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’


“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’


“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46


Our Gospel lesson for today is a parable about the final judgment of the world. It’s a familiar text. I’m sure we’ve all heard and read it dozens of times. But it’s also a parable that can be – and has been – misunderstood. If you take it out of context, you could think it speaks of salvation by works!


We need to always remember the chief rule in understanding Scripture. Since God cannot contradict Himself, we say that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” That is to say that one part of the Bible cannot contradict another part. If we find a case where it appears that there is a contradiction, it means that we don’t understand something, so we try to understand the apparently contradicting verses by using the simple, plain verses.


In this Gospel parable today, we first must understand a major difference between sheep and goats, since Jesus says He will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. In Israel you see many sheep and goats. And what you always see is a flock of sheep following their shepherd, while a goat herder is pushing his herd from the rear, because the goats aren’t about to follow him!


Then, secondly, we need to look at some simple, plain verses that speak of salvation and works, like Ephesians, Chapter 2, verses 8-10. First, we read of salvation: “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.” That’s quite plain and simple, don’t you think? Then, in verse 10, we learn about works: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Good works are to be done by people who have been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.


Now, the parable begins, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory.” That’s when we will meet Him, at His Second Coming. But that’s not the way we meet Him today. Jesus speaks to His “sheep” – His followers – those who have believed on Him – and speaks of their help for the hungry and thirsty, those in prison and others in need and then He says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” He identifies Himself with His most humble subjects. Of course, those who are in power can always play humble for a while. Marie Antoinette and the ladies of her court dressed up as peasant girls at Versailles and pretended to be simple French farm people. But while the real peasants often went hungry, the queen could stop the game when she chose and sit down to a good meal. It’s very different with King Jesus. He isn’t just dressed up like us. He is one of us and has come to be one of us in the most difficult times of our lives. This king doesn’t just stop with saying that He was with the common people – He identifies with the hungry and thirsty, the friendless and grieving, the poor and sick and imprisoned.


Judgment Day will reveal the sovereignty of Jesus for all the world to see, and there will be no doubt about who the true King of Creation is. And because that king has entered fully into our world to save it, our commitment to Him is to be acted out in the world. A living faith will show itself in love. As we help those in need, as we work for the welfare of the whole creation, we serve Him.


The way Jesus lived His life on Earth and the way we should live our lives are basically one and the same. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, we can see exactly the kinds of things for which He commends the righteous in the parable of the judgment. When the crowd that has gathered around Him is getting hungry, and some of the disciples suggest sending them away to find food, Jesus instead provides food for them. Whenever a sick person, or a friend or relative of a sick person comes to Jesus for help, Jesus never sends them away disappointed. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” Now we are called to pattern our thinking and our behavior after that of Jesus. Now don’t get thrown off by the fact that Jesus’ provision of food for the multitudes and His healings in the Gospels are miracles. We aren’t called to be wonder workers but simply to use whatever abilities and resources God has given us in our following of Jesus. We are His workmanship; products being made by His skill. (That’s why we say, “Please be patient… God isn’t finished with me yet.”) Contributing to an organization that helps people in need; working at a food bank or volunteering at a hospital are very down-to-earth, non-miraculous actions that fit the pattern Christ has given us.


On the other hand, there are those who apparently never think of doing such things. Those whom the king addresses as “you who are cursed” in this story are not mass-murders or other spectacular evil doers whose sins hardly need to be emphasized. The “cursed ones” are people who don’t believe in Jesus and are not blessed by His Father. They’re looking out for number one and pass by on the other side. They have rejected the Good Shepherd. They haven’t followed Him like sheep but have chosen to be goats and have gone their own way.


Now you may say, “But non-Christians do good deeds too. They feed the hungry and thirsty and visit those in prison.” Yes, they do. And those are good deeds in our eyes. But remember Hebrews 11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please God!”


We’re reminded to keep our eyes open, to be alert for opportunities to serve. We all get appeals from various charities in the mail. Some are scams, and we can’t even support all the honest ones. But if you’re throwing all of them in the trash without looking at them, it may be a danger sign. Jesus has taught us, by words and actions, that concern for our neighbor’s welfare is essential to genuine humanity. C.S. Lewis, in one of his books, said, “In this parable those who ignored people in need are consigned to a place not meant for human beings at all – the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” Cain’s response to God, “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” is one of the slogans of Hell.


That can serve as a warning, just as the hope of “the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” can encourage us. Christ came from Heaven to serve. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This is most certainly true!


Amen.

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