In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes it’s best just to rip off the band-aid. Sometimes my children used to come to me with band-aids hanging half off, and they didn’t want to pull them off. So I say, okay, I’m going to pull it off when I get to 3: 1, 2—and I pull it off. Because I don’t want them to think about it too much, or get all tense, and then it will hurt more. So this morning I’m just going to rip off the band-aid when I get to 3: 1, 2—this parable is not about feeding the hungry and helping the needy, as we usually understand it. It’s just not.
Now there are a lot of passages in the Scriptures about helping those in need. In Matthew 6, Jesus says, “When you give to the needy…,” assuming that it’s going to happen. When you give to the needy. And throughout the Old Testament, Israel is continually told to provide for those who need something from them. Don’t go over your fields twice at the harvest; leave what falls for those who need to glean in order to eat. Welcome the stranger and the sojourner, because that’s what you once were. And Paul tells Christians often to provide for those who have needs. He tells them about the church in Jerusalem that is suffering, and tells them to help them out. Do good to all people, he says, and especially to those of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). There is no question that we are to help those in need. In fact, this is how God normally gives to people: through other people. He uses you and me, and even unbelievers, as masks behind which He hides, in order to serve them. Lots of passages about helping the poor and needy. But this parable is not one of them.
Consider the parable; read it in the context of the whole Gospel of Matthew, and see how Jesus uses these words. Even though we can barely hear it any other way, when we hear it in its context, we can see that Jesus is telling us something other than what we normally hear. The entire Scriptures testify that we do not get into God’s graces by doing good things for people. In fact, God seems to pursue exactly those people who have trouble doing the right thing. You don’t get into salvation or eternal life by doing good works. You’re saved by grace through faith, and it comes from outside you; it doesn’t come from works, so that no one can boast. It’s a free gift of God in Jesus Christ, and the one He makes into a new creation now does the good works which God prepared beforehand. But the good works only come after the creation is new; they don’t make it new.
If we believe that—if that’s true—then what’s the purpose of this parable? To command us to do good things for those in need? I don’t hear a single command here. This is a description of what will happen on the last Day. Jesus gives us many commands, but they aren’t here. And another thing that doesn’t quite seem to fit: if Jesus is telling us this parable so that we will do all these good things, why don’t those on His right know they’ve done them? When did we see You and do these things for You? they say. And those on His left say the same thing: when did we see You and not do these things? If they heard the parable, of course they know where He is: He’s in the hungry and the thirsty and the foreigner and the naked and the sick and the imprisoned. They know exactly where they succeeded or failed in this respect. Except they don’t. So if Jesus is telling this parable so that we will know where He is, the purpose of the parable would explicitly contradict that parable.
When and how and where, then, are these things done to the least of Jesus’ brothers, and so to Him? Well, who are Jesus’ brothers? We automatically assume that Jesus’ brothers are those whom He mentions: hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, etc. But that’s not what Jesus says. He tells us who His brothers are in the Gospel itself. In chapter 12, Jesus is speaking to the people, and someone tells Him that His mother and brothers are outside and they want to talk to Him. He says, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” He stretches out His hand toward His disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (12:46-50). And then, after His resurrection when He encounters Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary,” and they fall down at His feet in joy and fear. He says to them, “Don’t be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee and they will see Me there” (28:10). It’s very clear: Jesus’ brothers are His disciples; those who believe that He is the one whom the Father has sent, and follow Him no matter where He goes. It is to His brothers, His disciples, that He says, “Go and disciple the nations”—the same nations who are gathered here before Him in this parable—“disciple them by baptizing them into the Name and teaching them to keep everything I’ve said.” And as those disciples go, starting in the Book of Acts, sometimes they are received and sometimes they are rejected. Sometimes they are provided for, and sometimes they are not. Some people visit them in prison, and some do not.
Jesus tells them that this will happen, way back in chapter 10 when He sends out the Twelve the first time. He says that some will feed and shelter them and some will not receive or listen to them. He says they will experience the same things that Jesus experienced. And then He says, “The one who receives you receives Me. And the one who receives Me receives the One who sent Me.” If you receive the one who brings you the Word of God, then you receive God Himself, and you do the will of the Father in heaven. “The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward; and the one who gives a cup of cold water [to someone who is thirsty!] because he bears the name of disciple will surely not lose his reward” (10:40-42).
This is what it means to do these things to His brothers and so do them to Him, or not to do . If you refuse to listen to His disciples when they bring you His Word, then you are refusing to listen to Jesus Himself. And if you receive the disciples because they are the ones bringing you the Word of God, then you are receiving Jesus Himself. As it was at the time of His Apostles, so it continues down to our day: His Word is still carried to people and places, and people either hear and believe, receiving the one who brings the Word, or they do not.
I know a little of this from personal experience. You called me here to preach the Word of God to you, to deliver His forgiving Word, to absolve you of your sins, to baptize, and to give you Christ’s Body and Blood in the bread and the wine. And you have received me and my family. You all provide for everything I have so that I can do this work among you. But, of course, it’s not just me. You’ve received pastors who brought you the Word of God long before I got here, and you’ll continue to receive that Word long after I’m gone. That’s what the sheep do. They hear the voice of their Shepherd, no matter when or how it comes to them, and they rejoice to welcome Him and serve Him.
And on the last Day, when all the nations are gathered before His glorious throne, when He comes with all His angels, then He will indeed separate the nations as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. He will separate them to His right and to His left. This is not the judgment; it is the separation. Clearly, the judgment has already been given: Jesus separates before He says anything. He puts them on His right and left before He speaks to them. But the basis for the separation is the same as the basis for the judgment: Jesus Himself. He is the only basis for the separation: whether you heard and believed Him, or not. There is not, and there cannot be, any other reason that sinners are separated from each other. Sinners are sinners are sinners. The only thing that makes one sinner different from another is the holiness of Jesus. Jesus dies for all nations; His Word goes out to all nations; He calls all nations through His servants. And the dividing line is simply this: Who do you say this Son of Man is?
To you with ears to hear this Word, you have nothing to fear. Jesus is where His Word is. If you refuse to hear Him now, you will refuse to hear Him on that Day. Brothers and sisters, hear Him. He is your life and salvation; He is your peace and hope; He is the King who comes to gather the blessed ones of His Father. The spiritually destitute, the mourning, the ones laid low, the hungry and the thirsty for righteousness; He is your purity, He is your mercy, He is your righteousness. The Father blesses you today in His Son, so that on the last Day, you will hear Him say, “Come, blessed ones of My Father, and enter into the Kingdom prepared for you from before the foundation of the world.” The Father chose you in Christ before the foundation of the world, and then delivered His choice to you on the day of your Baptism, on the day when you heard the Word and believed it. Come blessed ones! It’s all for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/24/17