Sermon: Matthew 25:31-46
End Time 2 - Last Judgment - Nov. 12, 2017 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
I was raised on a farm, but it was a dairy farm so we didn’t raise sheep and goats. As a result I don’t really know that much about sheep or goats other than brief encounters with them or what I’ve read in books. Sheep are more docile and passive. They’re not really aggressive. They need a lot of help to be led to pasture and to be protected. We know that simply from the imagery of sheep in the Bible. Goats on the other hand are more active and aggressive. They are more likely to rummage for food or to attack or bunt those they consider opponents including humans.
Jesus certainly knew a lot about sheep and goats. He would have been well acquainted with the differences between the two. He lived in a land and culture where there were thousands of sheep and goats. They were a source of food for people. And, of course, sheep and goats were animals used for sacrifices at the temple.
As Jesus tells the account of the sheep and goats I don’t know if he had in mind the differences, but he’s not talking about literal sheep and goats. He’s talking about people at the end of the world in the final judgment divided into two groups referred to as sheep and goats.
This 2nd Sunday of End Time is also called Last Judgment Sunday, and there’s a lot we can learn from this account in Matthew about that judgment. And one thing we clearly learn is that on that last day there’ll be a division of all people into those who will be eternally blessed and those who will be eternally condemned. We would be wise to know the difference -
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SHEEP AND GOATS
If you ever visit Jerusalem you’ll most certainly go to the old city where the temple of Jesus’ day once stood. All that’s left of that temple is a foundational wall that’s sometimes referred to as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. Hundreds of visitors and worshipers come to pray at this wall every day. This remnant of the ancient temple is a reminder of the beautiful temple that once stood there but was violently destroyed by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago.
One day the disciples commented to Jesus about the magnificent buildings in the temple area and the massive stones used to build them. Jesus warned the disciples one day that one day all those buildings would be destroyed and that not one of those massive stones would be left upon another. Later when they were on the Mount of Olives the disciples asked Jesus about this dire prophecy: “Tell us when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Their question gave Jesus the opportunity for a rather long talk about the end of the world and the final judgment. At the end of his words is this lesson about the sheep and the goats.
Are you familiar with this account of the sheep and the goats? It’s likely that you are or that you at least know the imagery of the separation of the sheep and goats. I remember hearing this story a number of times in Sunday school and was always intrigued by it. It gets our attention because it confronts us clearly with the final judgment and our eternal destination.
What do you know about the final judgment? There are some basic facts that most people know or that we should know. Jesus makes them real clear. There most definitely will be a final judgment of all people. Daniel in the Old Testament writes that multitudes will rise from the dead, some to everlasting life and others to everlasting shame and contempt. And Daniel in our Old Testament reading today writes about the final judgment: “Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.” In the gospel of John Jesus says the same as Daniel, that all who are in their graves will rise to be judged.
Jesus’ words make it clear that he will be the Judge. God the Father appointed him to this work. And Jesus will divide all people from all of history into two groups, the sheep and the goats, the blessed and the condemned.
So it’s clear that you and I will be among those standing before Jesus in the judgment. What do you want to be - a sheep or a goat? Obviously we want to be among the sheep. But what’s the difference between the sheep and the goats? How do we get to be among the sheep and not the goats?
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t really explain how a person becomes a sheep or how he ends up among the goats. The truth is that before we even know it Jesus has made the division with the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. And then he speaks words to the sheep on his right that thrill us and words to the goats on his left that terrify us.
“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.’”
What would you say to Jesus if he said those words to you in the judgment? At first we might jump for joy and say, “Let’s go now to that kingdom prepared for us since creation.” But if we’re really honest we might hesitate like the sheep in the text and say, “When did we do all those good things to you, Jesus? When did we see you hungry and thirsty? We’ve never seen you face to face until right now.”
Jesus will say, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Whenever we love and help a person in need it’s as if we’re doing it for Jesus himself.
It’s interesting that the sheep in the text are unaware of when they did all these wonderful good works for people and ultimately for Jesus. They didn’t spend their life recording or making a list of their good works and acts of love to others. They didn’t tally up their score of good works to counterbalance their sins. But those acts of love were there, and they didn’t really even think about them. They didn’t pat themselves on the back.
Then Jesus will say to those goats 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 thirsty, and so on, but you gave me nothing to eat or drink. You didn’t show any love or concern for me.” What if Jesus said those words to you on the last day? It would be horrifying. We might try to argue with Jesus and say, “I wasn’t perfect, but I did a lot of good things for people in this world.” The truth is most people, the vast majority of people, do lots of good things for other people over the course of a lifetime. But it’s clear that whatever good things the goats on the left did for other people were not done for Jesus. He didn’t recognize them as good works or deeds.
But the goats don’t give up. “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?’” They’re really saying, “This isn’t fair. We never saw you. When could we have helped you? You can’t do this to us.” The goats sound to me like a bunch of whiny victims.
Jesus will respond to them, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” In plain words Jesus is saying, “There aren’t any excuses.” I’ve spent a lot of years in the ministry listening to excuses, lots of excuses, from lots of whiny victims. I’ve listened to every excuse under the sun why people can’t come to worship, why they don’t take God’s word seriously, why they don’t live like children of God. I could list lots of those excuses, but you’ve probably heard them too. Maybe you’ve made some of those excuses for yourself. It’s sufficient to say that there will be no excuses, absolutely no excuses, not one excuse, on the last day for not worshiping Jesus, for not loving God, for not loving your neighbor.
Jesus’ final words about the sheep and the goats are terrifying and thrilling: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
So are you a sheep or a goat? We certainly don’t want to imagine that we’re goats. We don’t want to end up in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. And if we imagine that we’re one of the sheep, or want to be one of the sheep, what likely happens is that we frantically try to think of a list of good things we did for people so Jesus will commend us on the last day. But then we wouldn’t be at all like the sheep who were unaware of the good things they did. They said, “Lord, when did we see you in need and help you? When did we do these things?”
Maybe asking if I’m a sheep or a goat isn’t even the question we should ask. It would be better for us all to simply consider how we react or respond to what Jesus says in this whole lesson. Here’s a couple suggestions about how not to respond. Don’t frantically try to come up with a list of good things you did in life to prove you deserve to be among the sheep. Don’t make excuses for yourself about why you didn’t love Jesus and your neighbor enough.
Rather have the humble and repentant attitude of Moses and say the words that he says in our psalm today, Psalm 90. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. . . . Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. . . . Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. . . . May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; . . .”
The real difference between the sheep and goats is that the sheep know and love God. The goats don’t. The sheep number their days aright. They know they only have so much time in this life. So they repent of their sins now. The goats don’t. The sheep know the compassion and forgiveness of God. The goats don’t. The sheep love Jesus their Savior. The goats don’t. Amen.