Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few weeks ago I was at a meeting with a number of the other pastors from around the Hamilton area and we were talking (as pastors do) about what we did in our congregations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation about a month ago. Eventually, however, the discussion came to be more focused on the fact that all of us pastors were kind of glad that the occasion was over. We were kind of “Martin Luther-ed” out. We, myself included, had been talking about, teaching about, watching movies/tv shows about Martin Luther for much of the last year and had all had enough. So, this week when I sat and looked at our gospel reading I was somewhat disappointed with myself when something about Martin Luther kept coming to mind. So, reluctantly, I want to talk just for a minute or two longer about Martin Luther.
One of Martin Luther’s profound insights into the truth of the Bible at the time of the Reformation was his concept of “two kinds of righteousness.” Now that word, “righteousness,” is the kind of word that a pastor uses in a sermon and then watches as the eyes of the congregation glaze over and people begin looking around the church for something more interesting than what is about to come out of the pastor’s mouth, but hang in there with me for just a minute.
The word righteousness itself just means goodness or being right. In the Bible we could add the word holiness to that definition. Being righteous means being holy or right or good. In particular it means being holy, right, and good in the eyes of God.
Martin Luther came to correctly understand, however, that there is more than one kind or righteousness talked about in the Bible. There is the righteousness that is given to us by God for the sake of Jesus through faith and there is the righteousness that we live out, by the help of God’s grace, in our day to day lives as Christians.
The first kind of righteousness is totally a gift. For the sake of Jesus and despite everything in us that would suggest He do the contrary, God declares that we are righteous (good, right, and holy) in His eyes. Even though our actions prove otherwise and even though no one else who knows what God knows about us would in their right mind ever call us righteous; God, for the sake of Jesus who died for us, looks down from heaven at sinners like us and declares that we are righteous, that we are good, right, and holy. That is the first kind of righteousness.
The second kind is like it, but it is different. The second kind of righteousness is also a gift, it would be impossible without God, but it does include some effort or work on our part. This second kind of righteousness is the righteousness that we live out in our lives day by day. The righteousness of Christian living. God’s declaration that we are for the sake of Jesus (the first kind of righteousness) changes who we are. It makes us Christian people, children of God, in the words of our gospel reading today: sheep. And as these Christian people we live a particular way. We struggle against the desires that we have that are contrary to God’s Word and we endeavor to love our neighbor as our self the way that God has commanded us to do. Do we do these things perfectly? Of course not, but as Christians and by the help of the Holy Spirit we try. This is the second kind of righteousness that Martin Luther identified in the Bible.
So what’s the point of all this, why do I bring this up today? Well, this understanding of the two kinds of righteousness can help us a great deal as we unpack our gospel reading today. It can help us take a daunting, potentially overwhelming, and maybe even terrifying reading and make it something we can truly understand and rejoice in.
Jesus tells us the final parable in a whole series of parables about the end times and what it will be like on the day when He returns. After a whole bunch of parables about His “delay” and our waiting for that day when He comes we finally in today’s parable get to the big day when Jesus comes again. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory,” Jesus says, “and all the angels come with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” This is judgement day, the day when Jesus comes again, the day when the deeds of every man, woman, and child will be judged. The sheep will be separated from the goats. The goats will go to eternal punishment and the sheep will go into eternal life.
All of this begs the question, then, what is the difference between the sheep and the goats? Well, verse 37 and verse 46 of this gospel reading tell us what the difference is: the sheep are “righteous” (there’s that word again!) the goats are not. This is where Luther’s understanding of the two kinds of righteousness is important.
It would be tempting for us to read this gospel reading and think that the sheep were simply “righteous” because they did good things. Jesus tells us here that they fed the hungry, gave a drink to thirsty, visited the sick, welcomed the stranger, and even visited those in prison. Not only that, but Jesus goes on to say that whenever they did these kinds of things for other people they were really doing it for Him. These sheep really seem to have their act together, they live the right way.
The goats, on the other hand, don’t do these kinds of things. Apparently they did not feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, welcome the stranger, or visit those in prison. And when they didn’t do it they also did not do it for Jesus either. The goats did not live the right way.
If this is all we knew about God and about Jesus and about Jesus judging the living and the dead we would have a pretty clear picture of what we need to do. We need to be righteous. We need to live the right way. We need to do what sheep do. Otherwise we are goats.
But our lives and the rest of the Bible paint a different picture. We all know that we have not done a perfect job helping others when we have the chance. We’ve all passed up opportunities to serve one another for some reason. Not only that, Romans 3:10 says, “No one is righteous, no, not one.” No one, nobody, none. No one does what God commands, no one is good or holy or right, no one is a sheep. We are all goats. So now what?
Well, we come back to Martin Luther and the two kinds of righteousness. What kind of righteousness makes a sheep a sheep? The righteousness that God gives as a gift for the sake of Jesus or the righteousness that we do? Our righteousness can’t do it, our righteousness can’t turn goats into sheep, but God’s righteousness can!
This is the purpose for which Jesus came into this world, He came to make a goat like you into a sheep that is prepared and ready for life in the Kingdom of God. He is our Shepherd, He is the Lamb, He takes away our sin and makes us sheep. He gives us His own righteousness so that we, who have no righteousness of our own, can be called sheep and on that last day when the sheep are separated from the goats we know with certainty that we will be with the sheep because we are with our Shepherd Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and gives us His righteousness.
But that’s not all. We are called sheep for the sake of Jesus, but sheep like us don’t go on living like goats. There are, remember, two kinds of righteousness. Now, having been declared righteous sheep for the sake of Jesus, we are called to live like sheep. Sheep do sheep things. Sheep feed the hungry. Sheep give a drink to those who are thirsty. Sheep visit the sick. Sheep welcome the strangers. Sheep visit those in prison. Sheep do sheep things. Sheep, the people of God in this world, love their neighbor. Sheep see the needs of the people around them and respond in love. This is what we do. This is the second kind of righteousness. This is what we are to be going about doing until the day when Jesus comes again. This is who we are to be each and every day of our lives on this earth.
Do we do these things perfectly in this life? Of course not. Do we fail? Everyday. The way Jesus tells it here, however, makes it clear that on the day when He comes again those failures won’t be remembered. We, the sheep who are declared righteous because of His death on the cross, will be forgiven. Even better yet, we will be given credit for the good that we have done (as insignificant as it may seem). Though our mistakes may seem to outnumber our correct responses, though our failures would seem to outweigh our successes, though our feeble efforts would seem to be of no significance, these deeds of love will be all that is remembered. The failures, shortcomings, weaknesses, and sins of our lives will be forgotten, forgiven for the sake of Jesus, and we will be righteous twice over. Righteous for the sake of Jesus and even righteous for the sake of the good that we have done. Twice righteous, doubly righteous, even though we don’t deserve it.
You are a sheep. When you read this gospel reading you need to understand that. You are a sheep for the sake of Jesus. But sheep live like sheep. Sinful though we are we are called nonetheless to live as sheep in this life. The righteousness of Jesus allows you to do this, to live as a sheep. May we see the needs of people around us and respond to them in love, may we live like sheep, for the sake of Jesus. Amen.