daily biblical sermons

Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, First Week of Lent, March 11, 2019
Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18, Psalm 18, Matthew 25:31-46

Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted


"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 them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left" (Matthew 25:31-33).

This is Jesus' account of the final judgment of all the nations of the world. Of course, whole nations are not judged as such and sent to heaven or hell, but rather the individuals in all nations.

Some have thought that this is only the judgment of the Gentiles, not the Jews, for the word used for nations is ta ethne, which is the same word used in other passages for the Gentiles, as opposed to Jews. But there is no indication in this text that Jesus is excluding Jews from this judgment as there is in other passages where Gentiles are spoken of as opposed to Jews. If Jesus wanted to make such an important distinction, he could have done so, and one would think that he would have done so; but since he didn't, it seems best to assume that ethne here simply means nations, all the nations of the world, meaning all the individuals in the world. In other words, this is the final judgment for everyone.

Jesus then proceeds to invite the sheep at his right hand to inherit "the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 25:34), because they helped those in need. Then he tells the goats at his left hand, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41), because they did not help those who were in need.

But then Jesus says something that greatly surprises both the sheep and the goats, when he tells each group why they were either saved are damned, namely that in helping or not helping the needy they were helping or not helping Christ himself: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). Then later he will tell the goats that are damned, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me" (Matthew 25:45).

This is an important revelation, something which neither the saved nor the damned had any idea of. The good just helped needy people because they needed help; while the wicked did not help them, because they were wicked. Neither group had any idea that they were either helping or denying help to Jesus Christ himself. So Jesus gives us an important new revelation in this Scripture passage. He gives us new motivation to help the needy by telling us that in helping them we are really helping him. And if we ignore needy people, we are really ignoring Jesus. Jesus reveals to us that this is a way of relating more closely to him by helping him through helping needy people. We can't physically see Jesus, but we can see needy people, and in helping them we are helping him.

Some have suggested that these needy people are really Christian missionaries, because Jesus calls them "one of the least of these my brethren" (Matthew 25:40). They can point to texts such as, "Truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward" (Mark 9:41). But the word "brethren" or "the least of these my brethren," as it is used here, does not necessarily mean a Christian missionary. There is no other indication in the text that this is what Jesus means here by "the least of these my brethren." So it is best to take this as meaning helping those most in need, helping the poorest of the poor, helping the least of Jesus' human brethren, helping human beings in the greatest need, helping the poorest human beings. Those who do this will be rewarded at the final judgment. Those who do not do this will be cast into hell at the final judgment.

Next we note that Jesus says that those that did not help him in the least of these his brethren "will go away into eternal punishment [kolasin aionion], but the righteous into eternal life [zoen aionion]" (Matthew 25:46). Very few, I think, will object to Jesus saying that the good sheep at his right hand will enter into eternal life. We all welcome this wonderful revelation. But many today don't accept the other part of the same sentence, that the goats "will go away into eternal punishment [kolasin aionion]" (Matthew 25:46). To reject eternal punishment is not logical, because the word eternal (aionion) is the same word used for both eternal punishment and eternal life. So if you accept eternal life as meaning everlasting life, life that has no end, with what logic do you reject eternal punishment as meaning everlasting punishment, punishment that has no end? There is no linguistic justification for accepting the second half of the sentence but rejecting the first half.

We can see in Revelation 20:10 that this Greek word aionios means forever: "And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever [eis tous aionas ton aionon]." This Greek word means forever, everlasting, eternal, without end. Jesus is talking about punishment that has no end, everlasting punishment, what we have always understood by the word hell. 1 Timothy 1:17 also makes it perfectly clear that the Greek word (aion) means forever, everlasting, eternal: "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen [eis tous aionas ton aionon]".

So Christians that say, "There is no such thing as everlasting punishment. That's not the logic of the gospel" are quite mistaken. They are not preaching to us the word of God. They are not preaching to the modern world what God has revealed to us in his Scriptures, but rather are twisting the Scriptures to align them with what the modern world believes. This is the reverse of Christian mission. Instead of preaching the word of God to the world and trying to convert the world to the truth that God has revealed, namely that there will be both everlasting reward and everlasting punishment, they have reversed the process, and are allowing the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) to convert them, making them water down the word of God and deny the teaching of Scripture so that the world will accept them. This is a serious error.

Finally, some are troubled that this Scripture passage seems to say that we are saved by works, not by faith, while other Scriptures tell us the exact opposite, namely that we are saved by faith, not by works (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9). Works are constantly mentioned in this passage, but faith is nowhere mentioned. So are we to conclude that the Scriptures are contradicting themselves, some Scriptures telling us that we are saved by faith, not by works, while other Scriptures telling us the opposite, that we are saved by works, not by faith?

This can hardly be the case if, as we Christians believe, Scripture is divinely inspired and its ultimate author is God himself who cannot and does not contradict himself. So how do we solve this problem, that God in one passage tells us that we are saved by faith, not by works and in another passage, this one, seems to be telling us the exact opposite, that we are saved by works, not by faith?

First of all, we may assume that the sheep at Christ's right hand, who are saved, are Christians who believe in Christ, so it is not necessary to repeat here that they believe; rather Jesus is showing us what believers do. He is showing us how we can discern who are true believers from those that are not true believers. We can discern the difference, for one must do more than just cry out, "Lord, Lord" to enter heaven (Matthew 7:21). Those who only cry out, "Lord, Lord" but do not do good works and help the needy do not have true, justifying faith. By their works you shall know them. By their fruits you shall know them. This is how you can tell who is a true Christian. Those that help the needy and do good works are genuine Christians who have saving faith, because good works and helping the needy are the necessary fruit of a person of genuine faith.

Such good works do not justify us before God, do not earn our justification or our way into heaven or the forgiveness of our sins. The work that earns our justification, forgiveness, and salvation is Christ's good work for us on the cross, where he atoned for our sins by making just reparation for them by paying our debt of suffering and death that we owe God for our sins. This gift that Christ earns for us is given to us through our faith in him. In other words, faith is our extended empty hand to receive from Christ the gift of justification that he earned for us by his good work on the cross. Once we have received this gift of justification, then, if we are truly justified, we are "new men" in Christ, and we will bear good fruit, the fruit of good works, of helping those in need. And by observing our fruit, they will know that we are true Christians.

If you are walking through a forest and see a wild apple tree, you will know whether it is a good apple tree or a bad apple tree by its fruit. If the fruit hanging from its branches is good, it is a good tree. If it bears bad fruit, it is a bad tree. "A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit ... Thus you will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:18, 20).

So at the final judgment, how can you tell who are good Christians and who are not good Christians? You can tell in the same way that you can tell whether a wild apple tree is a good apple tree or a bad apple tree, by their fruit. If they help the needy, if their life is filled with good works, that is a sign that they are good trees, truly justified Christians that have been declared and made righteous by God, through their faith in Jesus Christ, whose atoning death has paid their debt to God of suffering and death for their sins; and so God has then declared and made them righteous.


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