Under the Cross: Don't Look at the List

By Harrison Goodman

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” Matthew 25:31-33

All the Excuses in the World

It says something about us that the very second we hear the text about how Jesus will judge us on the Last Day, we have to start looking for loopholes. All we see is the list. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36). These are the things to do. And honestly, the things that I didn’t do. Loopholes help. Sometimes we’ll even invent nice trite sayings to try and add legitimacy, like “God helps those who help themselves.” Then we just ignore the entire rest of the Scriptures where we read that Jesus only helps sinners who can’t help themselves.

Or maybe we just chalk it up to the fact that nobody’s perfect. It’s not that this stuff doesn’t matter. It’s that if we were to measure out all of the things that we’ve done, both the good and the bad, we figure that we’re at least trending positive. But the maddening part is when we read what the Lord has to say and see that nobody is actually left out for what they did; it’s for what they didn’t do: “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:42-43).

Each kind did the stuff on the list. The sheep and the goats both--the sheep by Jesus’ own words and the goats to their surprise. “When did we not do these things?” They were already trying. When my wife asks me to do the dishes, then I don’t do them and she asks me why the dishes aren’t done, I don’t say “When did you see me not do these dishes?” If I miss one, that might be a surprise. Don’t act like you have to be a Christian in order to be nice to people. It isn’t that the goats didn’t do just that. It’s just that apparently they didn’t do enough, which is a scary thought. Because everybody did at least some of the stuff on the list. The question is whether or not we want to be judged based on how well we did it.  

Out of Your Comfort Zone

Ironically, the list only really seems to encourage this trying-to-measure-up behavior. You can go through that list and find a couple of things you’d really like to hold up as a reward. You can find some things you know you didn’t do. If we’re really honest, most of us can find the things that people should have done for us and didn’t. That’s the problem with trying to attach any kind of judgment to this list. It becomes about you, not actually helping your neighbor. And when you want to talk about what you’ve earned it’s uncomfortable--not just because you know what you didn’t do. It’s also because the Jesus who says that He wants the least of these cared for seems to have set up a system where the only ones who can’t be saved are the least of these. Seems like a catch-22.

Judgment makes everyone uncomfortable. Every single person on the last day is uncomfortable with Jesus’ assessment. The sheep and the goats both. The goats figure they have done enough. They trusted in themselves and they don’t like what they’re hearing. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about doing good things, it’s that’s somewhere down the line they miss somebody.

The sheep, though, are every bit as uncomfortable. Even after they hear they’ve already gotten in, they don’t like this. The one thing in the world they don’t want is to be judged on the basis of their works. The concept still bugs them even after hearing that they are sheep. They trusted in God and now they’re freaked out because He’s actually going to look at whether or not they did enough work. They know that if you look at their works, they didn’t do enough. So their question is legitimate: When, Lord, did we do these things for you?

The List Comes to Bear

It comes down to this. The thing that separates the sheep and the goats is not what they were doing or even how much they were doing. It’s just where they put their trust--or rather in Whom. The only real separation is one simple question. Is your religion actually bigger than yourself or not? If your religion is only as big as the things that you can do, that’s one thing. If your religion is in a God much bigger than you, that’s another.

By the list, we all know no one should be saved. But what if Jesus actually loves the least of these as much as He claims to? Enough to come into this world to redeem those who have not earned it, who do not deserve it, but whom our Lord loves regardless? What if God entered His creation and assumed our weakness, our loneliness, our lack, our want, and even our sin? What if He carried them for us where we could not go and brought them to that Cross to bleed and to die, not for the righteous but for sinners? Not for those who have earned their place in salvation, but for me and for you?

This is our religion. This is our faith. That’s the religion in the rest of Scripture. Why would you set it aside on the last day? Do you really think that every word of mercy that our Lord would speak would finally stop when it truly matters?

As Always, It's Christ Alone

By works the only people who can’t be saved are the least of these with whom God is so concerned in the first place. So set aside the works. Set aside the list. It’s about the kind: goats or sheep. Because before we could ever grab hold of that awful list and start to lay out the things we did or failed to do, our Lord already makes it clear how we got in. You are a sheep. Before the list ever shows up He separates them by kind. He set the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “you are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” You were named a sheep and your place in the kingdom of heaven was set aside. Before you could ever do the work, you were named righteous. Before you could ever want to accomplish that list, the Lamb of God was slain, even before the foundation of the world, for you.

Don’t look at the list. Righteousness is yours by God’s gift to you in Christ. It isn’t measured in how much of the list you’ve accomplished. It isn’t measured in yourself at all, only in what God has already finished. You are baptized. Before that last day when you think you have to stand before the throne to make excuses and lay out your loopholes to see if they save, remember instead that you are baptized. You’ve put on Christ. We wear our baptisms as armor against our shortcomings and our sins and our fears. We put on Christ and His holiness and His righteousness. Put on Christ’s works and receive His rewards. On the last great day, you will hear, “Come, you are blessed by My Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Rev. Harrison Goodman is the pastor of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas.
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