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Social Justice Gospel? (St. Matthew 25.31-46)

Second Last Sunday in the Church Year

“Social Justice Gospel?”
Seminarian Andrew Keller, Vicar

St. Matthew 25.31-46

17 November 2019


+ In the Name of Jesus +

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

As we near the end of the church year, we anticipate Jesus’ second coming, where He will separate the sheep and the goats. To the sheep, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 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.” To the goats, however, He will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food…” and on it goes. When we read this Gospel, it is easy to read something into Jesus’ words that is not there. We might think this is a command for us to act, and that our actions will win us a final reward. How are we to understand a Gospel reading that seems to contradict salvation by grace through faith without works?

Look at the response of those called ‘blessed.’ They say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” They are not boastful about their works. In fact, they do not recognize that they did anything. Their reward is not conditional on their works. It was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, before they could do anything. They are told to come and inherit. It is a gift of God given to the righteous.

What qualifies us to be righteous?  We know from Scripture that our good works are as dirty rags before God. The question isn’t, “What are we to do to be saved?” It is, “What has Jesus done for you in order that you might be saved?” The law, which God gave to Moses, had in mind those who were least on the earth, namely the orphans, the widows and the sojourner. God gave justice to these people and executed it through those whom He gave authority on earth. However, the people frequently rebelled and failed to keep His commands. They sought the selfish ways of the flesh. This is why we focus not on our work, but on Jesus’. He has done all that He mentioned in the gospel and more for you. As He fed the 5000 and the 4000, He feeds you with His body given into death for all your sins. He gives you Living Water, which wells up to eternity, as well as gives you His true blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins. He clothes you with His righteousness, placed upon you at your baptism. He visits and remembers you through your pastor. Jesus has done all these things for you.

Finally, on the Last Day, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.” When He comes again, all people will be gathered before Him, where He will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be called to inherit, not because of their works, but by His grace, as St. Paul reminds us in the letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” As people called blessed, the works of the sheep are the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which care for their brothers. Who are these brothers? Jesus calls the recipients of these works, “The least of my brothers.” This extends to pastors and the faithful of the church. Therefore, caring for Jesus’ brothers is caring for the Gospel, those who preach it, and for those who are fellow heirs of that Gospel.

Many Christians, however, seek to make the focus of our Lord’s words more about humanity’s work for one another, and less about Jesus’ work for us and through us. By doing this, they reduce Christianity into no more than a ‘social justice gospel.’ Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress, once commented on Jesus’ words when she said, “‘In as much as you have done unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me. This passage teaches about God in each of us that we are bound to each other, and we are called to act— not to sit, not to wait— but to act, all of us together.” Her words sound like a good exhortation to help our fellow man. However, by interpreting Jesus’ words as a social justice call to action, she ignores the point of the text. Jesus’ words are not a call to action, but are a call to ‘come, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you who are believers in Christ.’

There is a certain folly of the social justice movement. They seek the glory of man. They seek the reward, not of God’s kingdom, but of earthly glory, which makes one feel better about one’s self. They want to be seen helping others. Doing good for others is too often only done in order to stream it on social media. Yes, they help others, but the real reward for them is the glory of man. They seek so much to live their best life now, not even caring about or believing in the life to come.

Therein lies the issue: the true Gospel makes no demand. The imposition of good works ends up taking a gift of the Spirit and crushing it with law. This true Gospel speaks of Jesus’ work for us, not what we are to do for others. What has He done? He perfectly loved God and His neighbor. He perfectly obeyed all His Father’s commandments. He bore the sins of the world upon the cross for all humanity, that in Him, we might have life. Therefore, we are to respond in joy and thanksgiving, the Spirit producing in us good fruit for the benefit of our neighbor.

In reality, we sinners like the social justice gospel. It strokes our ego, making us feel secure in ourselves. We could look at the gospel reading for today and keep a tally of all the good we have done, while looking down at those who haven’t done as much as we have.

Are we to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned or care for the sick? Are we to love our neighbor as ourselves? Of course, we should do these things. Jesus’ words are reminders that His faithful do not abandon their brothers. We are not condemning all who do work on behalf of their fellow man. However, if you looks to your works for your security, before God, you will fall flat. When one reduces the gospel into a social justice agenda, Christ’s work for us is obscured. There will be times where we too try to claim Jesus’ glory for ourselves. When this happens, we need to repent, recognizing that we do not fully care for our neighbor as we should.

Instead, hold fast to Christ crucified and risen for you. He has prepared a place for you without demanding anything from you. Graciously receive the reward that He has won for you. Therefore, as redeemed believers in Jesus, good works flow out of you by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is as James wrote, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”

So, is our Lord Jesus another lawgiver or another great teacher of social ‘woke-ness’ as the social justice movement tries to make Him? Did He only come to earth to be our moral guide?

Certainly not! He came to us because He knew we could not satisfy the Law on our own. In fact, we actively rebel against it. Therefore, Jesus took on human flesh, obeyed the Father to the point of death, and rose again victoriously for us. He has the scars of the crucifixion to attest that He is the Lord, to whom, as Jesus said in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He will exercise this authority for your good when He comes again to separate the sheep and the goats. He will take you to inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. You have been declared righteous, not by your works, but by Jesus. When He comes again, He will say to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen

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