2nd Last Sunday
St. Matthew 25:31-46
November 17, 2013
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Whenever good works are praised in Holy Scripture, it is necessary to consider the context and details. For if they are not read in light of the entire Bible our fallen minds can be confused. In fact, no statement of Scripture can disagree with Hebrews 11: “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Therefore no good work is pleasing to God without faith in Christ. Good works only please God when they are performed by those who are justified, that is, by those who hold that they are accepted by God on account of Christ, who have faith. The righteous look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for forgiveness and salvation. They necessarily produce good works and their good works please God. Thus our text: “I was hungry and you gave me food,” and so forth.
When Our Lord speaks here as though eternal life is given because of good works, it is understood that eternal life is given to the righteous, that is, to those have been declared righteous for His sake. Good works are the evidence of faith and they always follow faith. The Scriptures, then, can speak of works as kind of shorthand for faith since it is impossible to please God without faith and there is no good work, in the sense of pleasing God, apart from faith.
So if something is recognized by God as a good work it must include and be the fruit of faith. If it was not, it would not be called “good.” Again, good works necessarily flow out of faith. There is no faith that does not produce good works and there is no good work that is truly good that does not come from faith.
This is why Christ lists these six acts of mercy. He would show us that hypocrisy does not save. It is not possible to have faith and not have works. That which saves and declares men acceptable to God is the righteousness that He bestows in grace. That righteousness gives new life which produces good works.
Thus we ought therefore to measure ourselves against this standard. How merciful have we have been? How evident is our faith in our lives and works? Do the words of Christ about feeding the poor and welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick, describe your life? Woe to you if you think they do. Repent. Repent for not doing them, to be sure, but even more repent for thinking you’ve done enough, for thinking you’ve been pretty merciful. Repent for justifying yourself and appeasing your conscience by dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket while you go home to feast. Those who thought they’d done pretty well, who dared Christ to point out when they failed, go to the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. If Thou, O Lord, markest iniquities or measured the hardness of our hearts and lack of mercy, who could stand? No one – but the One who chose not to stand but to be counted with sinners into death.
It is only those who repent, who throw themselves upon God’s mercy, who are washed and cleansed by Christ, who are saved. The sheep likewise protest. Getting credit for good works makes them nervous. They look not to their works but to Christ. They ask, “When did we ever do these things?” because they don’t want to be judged by their works, but by Christ’s righteousness. We absolutely, in no way, want to be judged by our works. We beg God to judge us by the cross, by the Law fulfilled and insist that He keep His promise and accept the demands that justice has made on Him.
There is something else here. Our Lord does not identify Himself with those who perform good works. He locates Himself instead with those who receive good works. He does not say, “When you fed the hungry and gave drink to the thirsty, when you welcomed strangers and clothed the naked, and when you visited those sick or in prisoners, then, finally, you were acting like Me. This was My purpose, to make you behave.” Rather, it is those who received the mercy of others, who were the beneficiaries, who stand in His stead. “When you did it to them,” He says “you did it to Me.” He is not the Giver, He is the Receiver.
I know, He is both. But in this account, the emphasis is on those who receive. Those who are fed, who are given drink, who are welcomed, who are clothed, and who are visited and comforted, they are His brothers. Too often we’re like Peter refusing to let Jesus wash us. Here is the point: the Church of Christ is not the well-fed, well-clothed, healthy, and powerful people of this world, but consists instead of those who need mercy, whose feet need washing. Those who need and receive mercy are His brothers. That is part of why the righteous are confused by His description of their works. They remember being fed, not feeding. And what honor is there is being fed? It seems backwards. But that is how it is in the Kingdom. Thus our primary goal is not to perform good works, but to receive the good works of Christ through others, to be forgiven, to be fed, to be washed, to be clothed, to be comforted.
To be righteous is to refuse credit for your works and to be a recipient of mercy. Certainly, you do perform good works. You serve your neighbors. God is pleased with this. He loves your good works – even if you are sometimes unaware of them. For even as it is impossible to please God without faith so also it is impossible not to please Him with faith. As you have received mercy, you respond in mercy to others. Your response is imperfect, tainted by sin, but it is purified by grace, accepted for the sake of Christ. Again, that is why the righteous are confused. Their good works weren’t that good as seen in the eyes of men, but washed in the Blood of the Lamb, their works were perfect and impressive.
God uses your works as His hands in this world. He provides for His brothers on earth through you. You are the Baptized, the blessed of His Father, the sons of His Cross and the Bride of His resurrection. He has redeemed you to bring you home.
In +Jesus’ Name.