He comes to judge the living and the dead. Judgment Day. It’s not far off. Nearer now than it was a week ago. How near? We don’t know, and He’s not telling. What will it be like, this day of judgment? Hear the parable of the sheep and the goats.
This is Jesus’ last parable, His last word about last things before He dies and rises. He looks ahead to His coming in glory, when He will as the Son of Man in all His glory, and all His angels are with Him, and He sits on His throne to judge. His coming at the end of the age will be like a shepherd and his flock at the close of the day. All through the day, sheep and goats graze together as one flock under one shepherd interchageably. Jesus is Lord of all and shepherd of all. Only at the end of the day are they separated into their respective pens. The sheep go to the pen on the shepherd’s right, the goats to the pen on his left.
Judgment is a sorting and a separation. The basis for the shepherd’s sorting is not what they did but what they are – sheep and goats. Not good and bad sheep. Not religious and unreligious goats. Just sheep and goats.
The sheep are identified as the “righteous,” the justified, those declared righteous for Jesus’ sake. The goats are those who refuse to be justified, who reject the gift in favor of their own works, which come up woefully short in the end. Works can’t turn goats into sheep any more than they can make saints our of sinners. Only God can do that. “By grace are you saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not by works.” By His justifying and saving Word, God calls the sinner a saint in Christ, the goat is declared to be a sheep in the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
Only after they are sorted and separated is there any talk of works. Our works will be judged, this is true. But we will not be judged by our works, but only by the work of Jesus – His perfect life, His perfect death. The sheep on the right receive a blessing. They are “blessed by the Father.” They have an inheritance, a kingdom prepared for them from before the foundation of the world. That’s Christ talk. When you talk about anything “before the beginning,” it must be in Christ. Christ is the One who was before the foundation of the world, and in Him are found all His sheep.
Their works are praised; a deep mystery is revealed. Something hidden that you would not have known, unless it was revealed to you. The Shepherd King was hidden in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the one needing clothing, the sick one, the one in prison. Who would have known? The sheep had no idea; they are astonished. They say, “When, Lord? What did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or in need of clothing or sick or imprisoned? When did we do these things for you?” They just did them because they needed to be done.
We don’t normally look for God in the least, do we? We may look down on them. We may even look away from them. But we hardly recognize them as a icon of Jesus in His humility. And we certainly don’t want to see ourselves in that light. Who among you wants to be regarded as “least”? Certainly not old Adam. He wants to be greatest, a king, the one in charge, a god. He will have nothing to do with the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, imprisoned, sick, with the least, the lost, the losers.
Jesus, quite intentionally I believe, is describing Himself in His own crucified humility. He was hungry with our hunger, thirsty with our thirst, naked with our shame, imprisoned under the Law, sick with our sin. He was all those things, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. “No beauty that we should desire Him,” Isaiah said of the “suffering servant.” If you’re looking for glory on our terms, you wouldn’t look here.
On the left are the goats. They have no inheritancebut a dismissal. “Depart from me.” They aren’t blessed but cursed. Not by the Father, please note, simply cursed. The Father curses no one. They are dismissed to an eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Hell is intended only for the devil and his fallen angels. Not you, me, or any human being in this world. God’s will is that all be saved in Jesus, and come to the knowledge of that truth. Jesus is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. If anyone is cursed, if anyone winds up in eternal fire, it will be entirely against God’s good and gracious will to save.
Their sin was one of omission. They did nothing. They gave nothing to eat to the hungry, nothing to drink to the thirsty, nothing to wear to the naked, nothing for the stranger, nothing for the sick and imprisoned. They did nothing because they did not recognize the King in the losers. “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, and did not help you?” Had they known it was the Lord, they would have done something. They are as ignorant of their sin as the sheep were of their good works. And when confronted with their sins of omission, they do the faithless thing – the try to justify themselves. “We didn’t know it was you.” Exactly.
In rejecting the least and the lost, they rejected their hidden Lord. Their refusal to be numbered with the losers flowed out of their rejection of their Shepherd. They turned their back on every sign of His cross in the world. And in the end, their rejection becomes their own condemnation. They don’t get what they deserve, they get what they desire. They wanted nothing to do with their Shepherd, and now they will live without Him forever. “They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
So then which are you? Sheep or a goat? At the end of the parable, at the end of the day, at the end of your life, at the end of the age, which one are you? Are you a sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock, blessed by His Father, with an eternal inheritance? Or are you a goat, cursed by your own refusal to be justified, cursed to an eternal punishment in eternal fire intended only for fallen angels?
“Simul justus et peccator,” MartinLuther observed of our condition under the Word. “At once righteous and a sinner.” Simultaneously sheep and goat. That’s the mystery of our existence under the Word that is at once Law and Gospel. Don’t get fooled into either/or thinking. In this life, it’s always both/and.
If you look into the mirror of the Law, you will see the face of a goat staring back at you. You will see all your denials and rejections of the least – the unfed hungry, the unquenched thirsty, the unclothed naked, the unwelcomed stranger, the sick or imprisoned that you did not visit and comfort. If you look to the Law for comfort in God’s judgment, you won’t find any. We are all natural born goats. Sinners. Children of Adam and Eve. Rebels against our Shepherd and King. Were it not for Jesus, our Shepherd and God’s Lamb, we would all hear a divine “Depart from me.” Apart from Jesus, there is only eternal punishment, eternal fire, eternal regret at opportunities overlooked and lost.
But there is another way to see yourself. Not in the mirror of the Law but in Christ. He is your life. In Adam, you are dead and doomed as the goats in the parable. But in Christ you are alive to God, people of His pasture, sheep of His hand. Embraced in the death of the Shepherd, goats are declared sheep in the eyes of God. Don’t look to your works. Your works will bring you no comfort, no assurance. The good in your good works is not even apparent to you. Look to Jesus Christ. He will tell you who you are.
Look to all those concrete, tangible places where Christ locates Himself for you. Look to your Baptism. That’s your identity in Christ. In Adam, you’re 100% goat on the left. But in Christ, you are 100% sheep on the right. Embraced in the death of the Lamb, goats are sheep in the eyes of the Shepherd, cleansed of their sins, united with Him who takes away their sins in His death.
Look to the word of forgiveness. Forgiveness received is the difference between a sheep and a goat. Be forgiven and free in Christ. Learn what it means to live in the freedom of that forgiveness, trusting Jesus and His work and not yourself and your works.
Look to the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s Body and Blood given and shed for you. The Shepherd feeds His sheep with His own death and life. He prepares a table for you in the presence of your enemies. Your cups runs over in the abundance of Jesus’ life poured out for you.
He satisfies your hunger and thirst for righteousness. He clothes you with His perfection, a seamless, spotless robe of white. He welcomes you to His Father’s house and to His table, not as a stranger but as friend and family. He visits you in the prison house of sin and death to set you free. He comes as the divine Physician to heal you. He comes the perfect Sheep, the unblemished Lamb once slain for all.
And in Christ, look to the least and lowly and lost around you. They are Christ in cognito for you to serve. He is that poor beggar, the orphaned child, the friendless stranger, the dying woman, the imprisoned man. He is all of us in the brokenness and lostness of our humanity. “As often as you have done it for the least of these brothers of mine, you’ve done it to me.”
Don’t do these things to be saved. That would be the way of the goats. Do it because you are saved. That’s way of the sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd and who follow Him through death to life.
In the name of Jesus,