Sweating the Small Stuff

Matthew 25:31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 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. 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. 35 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.' 37 "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?' 40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' 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, 'I tell you the truth, 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."

A few years ago, the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Simple ways to keep the little things from taking over your life” became a best seller. Evidently, many people wanted to prevent the little things from taking over their life.

But today we heard the very opposite of that! In Matthew 25, Jesus describes what Judgment Day is going to be like. The King has already taken care of the big stuff – forgiveness, payment for sins and eternal salvation. Now He is looking to us to take care of the small stuff – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, nursing the sick and visiting the lonely. These are the things He remembers, that He treasures, that He points to as evidence of faith. So, if we Christians were going to write a book based upon these verses of Jesus’ very last parable, I suppose the title would be: “Sweating the Small Stuff! Simple ways to keep the little things taking over your life!” 

Typically, people read Jesus’ vision of the Judgment as a “cause and effect” account. You did these good things, therefore you get these good results. But this parable does not teach that we are justified before God based on works, of doing the small things. When you read Jesus’ words carefully, you notice that the sheep receive their blessings and inheritance from the Father before a single word about their good works is spoken. “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.’”

Scripture teaches that people do good works in God’s sight only after they come to faith and have been justified by Christ. Good works are the result of salvation, not its cause. The small things we do out of faith only follow our faith in the big things done by Jesus.

God did not judge you worthy of the Kingdom when you performed good works. He didn’t wait for you to produce a single righteous deed. He didn’t even wait for you to be born. This Kingdom is so much grace that the King began preparing it before the creation of the world.

What big things did Jesus do? He left His heavenly Kingdom to come to this world of sin and death. He was hungry with our hunger, thirsty with our thirst, naked with our shame, imprisoned under the Law, suffering with our sin.

What enables us to sweat the small stuff is faith and trust in our Savior who has already taken care of the big stuff.

The Good Shepherd already knows those who belong to Him and those who belong to Satan. He sorts the sheep from the goats based on faith alone. The Augsburg Confession says of this separation and judgment: “The difference between those who are in Christ and those who stand outside His forgiveness cannot be stated more clearly. The difference is as great as heaven and hell.” (AC XVII)

All humanity is judged on faith or lack thereof. What is faith? Faith in Christ is passive. Faith is itself a gift from God, which only receives all that Jesus has done for us. Jesus is the One active here, for you. He is the One who feeds you with own body and blood. He fills your cup with His life poured out for you. He welcomes you to His Father’s house and table, not as a stranger, but as a family member. He clothes you with the seamless, spotless white robe of His perfection. He visits you in the prison of sin and death to set you free. He comes as the divine Physician to heal you.

He did it all. You did nothing. You can only receive this passive faith.

But faith has another side to it. Faith is not just passive. It is also active, enlivened by the passive faith within so that it does good works without. It is a faith that naturally does all the small stuff – Ten Commandments stuff. As Lutherans, we hold dear the confession that we are saved by faith alone. But equally dear to us is the knowledge that saving faith is never alone. In other words, passive faith cannot and does not remain only passive faith. It demonstrates itself everywhere. It becomes active in faith. This is not two different kinds of faith, but one faith, just two sides of the same coin.

The sheep, by God’s free grace and favor, have this faith. However, the goats do not have faith in their Savior, they resist trusting the Shepherd, they refuse to be justified. So, they try to be saved by their good works. They are confused and consider their small stuff to be big stuff that should get them into heaven. They come up woefully short. And they are disappointed. They don’t understand that works cannot turn goats into sheep any more than they can make saints out of sinners. Only God can do that. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

While the sheep are on the King’s good side, His right, the goats are on the left. They have no inheritance, but a dismissal. “Depart from me!” They aren’t blessed but cursed. They are cursed because they would not accept the free gift of God’s salvation in His Son’s sacrifice. So, they are dismissed to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.

Theirs was a sin of omission. They believed nothing. So, they did nothing. Because they did not have Christ’s love living in their hearts with passive faith, they could not demonstrate Christ’s love with active faith. So, they did not help the hungry, thirst, naked, sick or imprisoned. They did nothing because they did not recognize their King in the hurting, the sick or the downtrodden. “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, and did not help you?” Had they known it was the Lord, they might have done something. When confronted with theirs sins of omission, they do the faithless thing – they try to justify themselves. “We didn’t know it was you.” Exactly!

Martin Luther writes in his Large Catechism: “God rightly calls all people murderers who do not provide counsel and help in distress and danger of body and life. … This means: You would have allowed Me and Mine to die of hunger, thirst, and cold. You would have allowed the wild beasts to tear us to pieces, or left us to rot in prison or perish in distress. What else is there but to rebuke them as murderers or bloodhounds? For although you have not actually done all this to someone, you have still, so far as you were concerned, let him wither and perish in misfortune. … It is just as if I saw someone navigating and laboring in deep water, or one fallen into fire, and could extend to him the hand to pull him out and save him, and yet refused to do it. How would I look, even in the eyes of the world? Just like a murderer and a criminal.” (Large Catechism, 191-192)

In rejecting the least and the lost, the goats rejected their hidden Lord. Their rejection became their own condemnation. They did not get what they deserved. They got what they desired. They wanted nothing to do with their Shepherd in this lifetime, and now they will live without Him forever. “They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Which one are you? Sheep or goat? At the end of the parable, 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 eternal fire intended only for fallen angels?

“Simul justus et peccator,” Martin Luther 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.

By the justifying work of the King living and dying as a criminal, now we, the true paupers and criminals, may enter the King’s Kingdom. Because the Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep, the goat is declared to be a sheep by the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

Notice how the sheep didn’t even know what they were doing. “When did we nourish, clothe, visit and care for you?” Far from being boastful about the good deeds worked in them by God’s Spirit, they are completely ignorant of them. It was so natural for them to do the small things out of faith that they didn’t even realize they were doing them. If you give food for the hungry, you are feeding Christ Himself. If you donate warm clothing to those without, you are clothing Christ Himself. If you pray for the homebound, visit the sick in the hospital, care for an ailing parent, speak a word of Christian encouragement – all out of love for Christ – then it is if you have done all those things for Christ Himself.

The King says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” As we serve others, we are serving our Lord who is Immanuel, “God with us.”

Jesus teaches us today that He did the big things for us so that we might do the small things for Him. Don’t do these things to be saved. That would be the way of the goats. Do them because you are saved. That’s the way of the sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd and who follow Him through death to life. Sweat the small stuff – for Jesus. Amen.