Summary: Is it really the good works of the "sheep" that will secure their salvation?
How do I measure up?
I don’t think I can be accused of exaggerating if I say that this is one of the most difficult passages of scripture in the entire Bible (Matthew 25: 31-46). It’s what teenagers today might call “in your face”. It confronts and challenges us at the very core of our being; it forces us to face up to the most fundamental of questions – “What does Jesus think of me?” Will I be one of his sheep to be blessed for eternity or one of the goats heading for the hot seat! It speaks of a time which is coming when all of the things by which the world judges us - power, prosperity, intellect – will be irrelevant and we will stand face to face with Jesus. At that moment, I suspect that for most of us the most significant question in the depths of our hearts will be – “How do I measure up?”
Let’s for a moment take ourselves to that scene in our gospel reading as Jesus paints this vivid picture for his disciples. Knowing that his own life would soon be over, he had been trying to explain to them that one day the whole world would be coming to an end. Again and again over the previous few days, both in straight talk and parables, he had emphasised the need to be prepared for such a time. And here he finally wraps up his teaching by describing for them the reason for such preparation - the day is coming when everyone will be judged. And the judgement would appear to be clear and simple, the separation of those who had measured up from those who had been found wanting – the sheep from the goats.
Use your imagination to take yourself forward to that judgement day. Milling all around are literally millions and millions of people, all of them looking expectantly, waiting for something to happen. Slowly, almost imperceptibly two groups begin to form as people are ushered to one side or the other. As we look between these groups toward the front, Jesus, now dressed in the glorious clothes of the King, appears. We listen as he speaks to those on his right – their faces are wreathed in smiles. Now he turns to speak to the group assembled on the other side. Can you see the shock on their faces? Jaws have dropped, eyes bulge. Most of them are shaking their heads in disbelief. They have no idea why they are standing there. And even less idea as to why Jesus is uttering those words of condemnation, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels.” Their understanding has been completely clouded by a life-time of self-satisfaction. They have been blind to the suffering and needs of others. And even at this very moment of truth they remain blind.
But one thing that cannot escape their sight is the transformed Jesus. No longer the suffering servant, the gentle teacher or the humble Saviour prepared to endure the agony of the cross. Here stands Jesus, the King and the Judge. Each of his words is a stinging condemnation. “Your life has been all about yourself. You’ve rarely lifted a finger to help others, much less put your own comfort at risk. Where were you when those around you needed a hand, a compassionate word, some practical help?”
All at once everyone begins to speak. “What do you mean? Don’t you remember the money I gave to charity. There’s only so much I could do. There was too much else on my plate. Hey, don’t forget I went to church - well most Sundays anyway! What more was I supposed to do?”
But their cries go unheeded and the judgement remains. We hear the words of Jesus, “How can you use my name and ignore the needs of others. Depart from me, I do not know you.” The evidence appears clear, the sentence just.
But let’s pause there for a moment - all may not be as it seems.
You may recall that a few moments ago I used the phrase that Jesus’ judgement “appeared to be clear and simple”. On his right would be the sheep, those who had gone out of their way to show kindness and charity to those in need, while on his left were the goats who had lived their lives for themselves. But I have to disillusion any of you who are thinking that it is good works and charity that separate the sheep from the goats. Sadly this is not the case. I say sadly because that is an interpretation that all of us to a greater or lesser degree eagerly seize on because it provides us with a simple and straightforward formula for heaven – if we do good then we can earn our ticket. If you give to the poor, comfort the sick, do this, do that, then God will love you and you’ll spend eternity with him.