God once spoke through his prophet Hosea saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus twice quotes Hosea’s most famous declaration (Matt. 9:13, 12:7). This distinction between mercy and sacrifice, points to the distinction between law and gospel. It creates a type of religion that is foreign to the world and its thinking. God’s desire is not to hold us in subjugation as lesser beings than the almighty. God does not want to selfishly glory in sacrifices offered to him.
Instead God wants mercy. He himself has mercy on us. What is all of creation, but God’s mercy? In Luther’s Small Catechism, he explains that God has made us and all creatures; he has given us and preserves all our powers. Why has God done all this? “Out of pure fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without my merit or worthiness.” All of creation is God’s free gift, God’s mercy to us. God likes to create. He likes to have mercy. God gains glory for himself not through sacrifice or religious ritual, but through having mercy on his creatures. God is jealous because he wants his creatures’ faith all for himself. But this jealousy is for our own good. Mercy comes through faith in the merciful one.
God’s mercy is so plentiful and abundant that it should spill out of you onto your neighbors. Mercy is the end of law and ethics. The law demands that we respect our neighbors and help them to an extent, but when the gospel comes God’s mercy is out of control. Christ did not stop at giving ten percent of his money to charity. He didn’t even stop with his healing miracles. He gave his life in order to have mercy. He who knew no sin became sin that we might becomes the righteousness of God (2nd Cor. 5:21).
What does this mean for how we live our lives? For us who through Christ have become the righteousness of God? There’s nothing left for us to do but have mercy. I suppose that you could say that we live our lives by an ethic of mercy. But ethics are all bound up in trying to do the right thing to keep ourselves pure and sinless. Christ had mercy by becoming sin. Because of Christ, we no longer have to worry about ethics, but are free to have mercy. We are free to get ourselves dirty in the sinful world and have mercy on sinners. We are free as Luther said to become “little Christs” for our neighbors.
This overflowing mercy is what Christ is describing in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. He is describing the fruit of faith. Faith is created by Christ’s mercy, and it overflows onto the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. This is the religion that Christ desires us to practice.
As God once said speaking through Amos, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. (Amos 5:21-22)” God does not desire ceremonial religion. Of course, we no longer offer burnt offerings to God, but do you think that God feels any differently about our so-called Eucharistic offerings of praise? Does he love our solemn assembling for worship or does he hate it?
I am convinced that many people think that one becomes holy in God’s eyes by giving him an hour on Sunday mornings. We see this as a great act of sacrifice. We fit in an hour for God amidst our hectic schedules.
This is a false understanding of worship and faith. We come to worship not to make ourselves holy or increase our holiness. We do not come to offer sacrifices to God. We come to worship because we are sinners and we need to be forgiven.
Worship then is not a sacrifice of a small part of our lives to God. Worship engulfs our lives. The mercy, which we receive from God in his word and sacrament, spills out of worship into the world.
The doctrine of vocation was at the heart of the Wittenberg Reformation. Luther claimed that we serve God through our vocations in the world. We serve God by serving our neighbor, just as much as the clergy serves God by giving away God’s word to his creatures. So for Luther all vocations were given by God, and serving your neighbor by giving her food or water was just as holy as serving her by preaching the word to her.
This is why Luther raged against medieval monasticism. He claimed that becoming a monk or a nun was to become the servant of the devil rather than God. This was not because celibacy is always wrong, or because living together with others in a communal environment is wrong. Luther did not like monasticism because the theology of his day taught that it was more holy to be a monk or a nun than a husband or a wife. Furthermore, monasticism was seen as a way of withdrawing oneself from the sinful world to have more perfect communion with God. Luther abhorred monasticism because monks and nuns did not serve their neighbors, but ran away from them and avoided them.
Christ’s words in Matthew twenty-five shatter medieval theology. They show us that if we want to be close to God, if we want to be close to Christ, we must feed the least of his brothers. One comes into contact with God in the sinful world by having mercy on those with whom Christ identifies.
No doubt there will be many seemingly religious people who on the judgment day will be cast into the eternal fire by Christ. They will be people who thought they were serving Jesus just fine. They think by showing up to church once a week, or by giving a few alms, that they have gained favor with Jesus. But Jesus wants us to practice our religion; he wants us to serve our neighbors all the time. He wants us to do this especially out in the world where we meet the naked, the sick, the starving, and the dying. Jesus does not want a religion of so-called family values. He does not want us to condemn those who have struggled to care for themselves. He wants mercy.
But you poor people, those of you who are sick or poor and cannot take care of yourselves, have no fear. Perhaps your neighbors might neglect you, but God himself won’t. God usually acts through creatures. He usually raises up a woman or a man to care for those of you who are troubled. But through his prophet Ezekiel God has promised that a day is coming when he will care for you himself. Listen to his promises to you:
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness… and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 13-15)
Listen to what he says to you who are lost and broken in this world, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. (Ezekiel 34:16)” God is even strong enough to overcome our sin. He sends Christ to be the good Shepard to the poor and the sick, even when sinners neglect them. You are the ones with whom Christ identifies (Matt. 25).
It is tempting to try to deny Christ’s words in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. It is tempting to claim that he somehow does not mean what he says. But Jesus means it when he talks about the eternal fire and sending some people there on the judgment day to suffer eternal punishment. If there is going to be any hope for us, who sin and do not always feed the hungry and care for the sick (Romans 7) it is not in denying Christ’s words, but through Christ’s words and sticking to what he actually says.
The amazing thing about what Christ tells us about the day when he will come in glory is that those who are sent to the eternal fire and those who inherit his kingdom are surprised. They are both surprised that they have either served or not served Christ. Christ is not telling a parable here. He does not say, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this…(Matt. 25:1)” as he says at the beginning of the parable in the first half of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. Instead Christ begins this story by saying, “when.” “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him…(Matt. 25: 31-32)” Christ is telling us how things will be. We will actually be surprised on the judgment day when Christ rewards us for serving our neighbors and punishes us for neglecting them.
In order to understand what Christ is doing in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, we have to go back to the beginning and understand the original sin. Adam and Eve were in the garden and they had words from God. God told them to eat from all the trees in the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told them that eating from that tree would be bad for them. God said to them, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die, (Gen. 3:3)” but then the serpent comes and tells Eve that God has an ulterior motive. He says that God’s words do not simply mean what they say, but that God does not want them to eat from the tree because they will become like God, knowing the difference between good and evil. So Adam and Eve believe the serpent. They look beyond God’s words and we sinners have been doing that ever since. We look behind God’s words for a deeper motive. A motive that is not for us, but is against us. We reject God’s mercy, and desire to have a wrathful God, whom, rather than trust, we can attempt to defeat with our actions and become like God.
The same thing has happened with our understanding of the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew twenty-five. Christ is telling us how things will be, but we think he has ulterior motives. We take him to be giving us cliff notes on the final judgment, giving us the answers so we can study them before the final test. But if Christ were merely telling us what to do or how we can get ourselves into heaven, if he were merely giving us new ethics to live by, then no one would be surprised on the judgment day. If Christ were replacing the system of religious sacrifice with a system of ethics based on caring for our neighbors, then you and I would know before the judgment day how well we have been feeding the poor and clothing the naked. We would know that we are serving Christ when we do such things. Those who do not serve the poor would be prepared and ready to suffer the eternal fire.
Instead Christ says that both the goats and the sheep will be surprised. This is because Christ is talking about the good works, which spring forth out of faith. Faith’s works are spontaneous and they are not motivated by fear of punishment or hopes of reward. Faith serves the least of Christ’s sisters and brothers simply because that is what faith does. Faith does not serve the poor because it is using them to serve Christ and get into heaven. Faith serves the poor for their own sake. That is why the faithful, even having read Matthew twenty-five, will be surprised on the judgment day when they learn that through serving their poor neighbors, they have been serving Christ.
God’s love is what Luther called “a lost love (eine verlorende Liebe).” He makes it rain on the good and the evil (Matt. 5:45). He gives his love away even though we abuse it. This love is often “lost” on us, but God gives it away anyways. So it is for those in whom God’s love creates faith. Believers give away themselves without any consideration of the objects of their love saying “thank you,” without consideration of the judgment day. The damned might very well spend more time worrying about ethics and the law than the faithful. They might have value systems and belief systems that say serving the poor is all that matters and Christ and faith are irrelevant, but this will only lead to their surprise on the judgment day. When you use the poor to establish your own righteousness and show the world that you alone are caring or wise, you are not treating the suffering the way Christ wants them treated. Faith alone does the works that Christ describes it doing in Matthew twenty-five.
Matthew twenty-five has often been taken to directly contradict what Paul says about the righteousness of faith. It has been taken to reassert works of the law as the way to righteousness. But faith alone serves the least of Christ’s sisters and brothers. Christ is not describing works of the law, but works of mercy. The faithful will be rewarded for these good works, but the reward does not motivate the works. Your neighbors’ needs motivate your works, just as our need motivated Christ to come down and die for us. Faith is the great miracle that, as Christ says in another place in Matthew, gives alms with the right hand while the left hand does not know what the right is doing (Matt. 6:3). This is why you faithful sheep will be surprised on the judgment day.
We always try to turn righteousness into a system. This can be a system of sacrifice, or worship, or charity. We like to do this so that we can then try to beat the system. How often do I need to go to church to be saved? How much money do I need to give to church? How much is enough to give to charity? Is helping out at the homeless shelter once a month enough to satisfy Jesus demands in Matthew twenty-five? But Christ is not installing one more system. He wants overflowing mercy. He wants you to give your lives away for the poor and the suffering. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:39)” This kind of sacrifice and love can only come from faith.
So where does faith belong? What do we have to believe in? We have the one who told us about the judgment day. We have the one speaking in Matthew twenty-five. This Jesus, whom we have often let go hungry, by not feeding the least of his hungry brothers, was crucified. By whom? By you, by me. On the cross he was naked and we gave him no clothing, thirsty and we gave him no drink, sick unto death and we watched him die. Considering all this, listen to what he had to say about you while he was hanging on his cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)” Even this sin Christ forgave.
He is the same one who taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. (Matt. 6:12)” About this petition he said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:14-15)”
So too you who have been hungry and have been betrayed by those who should have feed you as Christ was betrayed, have mercy. Forgive those who trespass against you. You will be greatly rewarded in heaven because you have the greatest opportunity to have mercy. Do not let your fellow sinful goats descend into hell because their sins have not been forgiven. Forgive, as your Father in heaven has forgiven you.
And you who have the means to care for the sick and cloth the naked, you know who you are. Have mercy. Do what you should. Have mercy on the least of Christ’s sisters and brothers just as he has had mercy on you. Have mercy as he has had mercy on us, the worst of sinners. No doubt, you will find out like the apostle Paul that you fail in serving your neighbors. You will find out that you “do not do the good” you “want, but the evil” you “do not want is what” you “do. (Romans 7:19)” Sin is so strong and deep that even you saints will be sinners till you die and are raised. It will often look to you like all you do is sin, but even in your sinning and failures you will be serving your neighbors and Christ in them, even though you do not realize it (Matt. 25).
But before you go out into the world, take a moment to pause from your labors. Take a rest from serving the poor. Take a break from your thirst and sickness. Take a break from forgiving sin. Take a rest from giving mercy and come receive mercy. Come receive the mercy that gives you something to believe in. Come receive the mercy that creates the faith to do the good works Jesus describes. Come receive the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Rejoice in Christ’s sacrament. In the forgiveness of sins he takes goats and makes us into his holy sheep (Psalm 100:3).
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100)