We’re now at the end of this series of parables about Christ’s return. We’ve seen that it will be unexpected, so we need to be ready. That, despite the delay, we need to make adequate preparation. That being prepared means being productive for the kingdom. And we ended yesterday with the principle that our actions are evidence of our faith – something which is taken up more explicitly in this final, extended story.
Matthew 25:31-33 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Years ago I visited a farm, and watched the farmer as he separated male and female sheep. He’d herd them all into a narrow run, and then as each sheep approached him he’d direct them to the left or right, using a gate. The speed with which he could recognise a male and female sheep – who were indistinguishable to us city folk – amazed us. Until he let us in on the secret that he’d put tags in one ear of the males, and the other ear of the females…
In the ancient world, separating sheep and goats was a common task at the end of each day. It might seem simple when you think of Merino sheep like we have in Australia, but it’s not all that obvious with the spotted Mediterranean breeds. They did this so that the sheep could be housed in the barn at night, while the hardier goats were left out in the paddocks. (Here’s a hint: in this metaphor, you want to be a sheep spending the night indoors.)
Matthew 25:34 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.
So the sheep (although this metaphor has been left firmly in the rear-view mirror) on the right get to enter into the kingdom of God. Why? Because I assume, of Jesus’ death in their place, and a reckoning of righteousness to them which they did not deserve? Um…. seems not…
Matthew 25:35-36 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, 36 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.’
Is this salvation-by-works? (Did Paul ever read this bit before he wrote Ephesians?) People entering the kingdom because they were nice to… Jesus? Even the righteous are confused about this bit:
Matthew 25:37-39 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
They’re a little puzzled, as clearly they don’t know what it is they’ve done to be let into the kingdom. Which itself points us away from salvation-by-works, since if they’d been doing them to earn their salvation they shouldn’t be all that surprised. But Jesus explains:
Matthew 25:40 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.’
The basis of their acceptance is how they’ve treated Jesus’ brothers and sisters, particularly when they’re in need, sick, or in prison.
This is contrasted with the fate of those on the left:
Matthew 25:41-46 41 “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. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 “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?’ 45 “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.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Although we trust in Jesus to be right with God, it seems the evidence that our trust is genuine is, at least in part, based on how we treat the least of these brothers and sisters of mine?
So who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters?
We’re told back in chapter 12:
Matthew 12:48-50 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
And wherever family terminology (usually “brothers”) is used in Matthew’s Gospel, it refers to Jesus’ followers – the community of the faithful. So in the story, the righteous are rewarded on the basis of how they have looked after their fellow believers, particularly when they are suffering.
Note: Sometimes Jesus’ brothers and sisters are interpreted as referring to all of humanity; while good works toward everyone are a good thing, the normal meaning of this term in Matthew tells us that right here in this particular passage, Jesus is referring to fellow believers.
So by this view, evidence of a person’s response to Jesus is how they treat one another. Which kind of fits well with Jesus’ famous words from John’s Gospel:
John 13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
This is a specific instance of a much wider issue: a person’s response to the gospel message is evidenced by their actions. If I have truly responded to the message of Jesus, put him in charge of my life, then my life must change. As well as caring for the community of believers, if I respond to the gospel I will show compassion to the needy, the hungry, the outcast; I will desire to live a moral, upright life; I will want to tell others about the kingdom.
So this is the point of all of these stories: whether you are watchful; faithful; have made adequate preparation for Christ’s return; productive; an authentic disciple – this will all flow from whether you have truly responded to the gospel.
Summing up the stories
In answering the question ‘how do we keep watch?’ Jesus has told a series of stories to gradually build up a picture of the answer. He has illustrated what kind of actions are characteristic of a disciple who is truly keeping watch. But when you get to the end of the stories, you realise what Jesus is saying. It’s not these actions that make you right with God. Telling others about Jesus or performing kind actions toward them isn’t the means. It’s the result of a life that has already been transformed through repentance, and faith in Jesus. It’s the evidence.
For if you are a true disciple of Jesus, you can’t help but keep watch; that’s the focus of your life, the only thing that matters for you.
If you are a true disciple of Jesus, you will be desiring with all your being to be found faithfully serving him when he returns.
If you are a true disciple of Jesus, then by definition you have made the only preparation you can make – accepting Jesus’ sacrificial death on in your place.
If you are a true disciple of Jesus, then you cannot help but be productive for the kingdom, telling others about this wonderful Saviour whom you serve.
If you are a true disciple of Jesus, then you will have love for those who are also his disciples. And you will continue to show God’s kindness to others.
We also see from these stories that it won’t be immediately apparent on the outside if someone is genuinely converted or not: in fact, it may take judgement day to sort them out To separate the sheep from the goats; to reveal the wise from the foolish; and to find the faithful from the lazy.
Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ – with their mouth – will enter into the kingdom of God. But only those who prove it to be so through their actions. Keep watch, so that we might be numbered among the sheep, for we do not know when our master is returning.