The blessing here is the question that is asked of the Lord in glory. Did you notice the question? You probably noticed it from the goats. We’d expect goats to ask such a question. They are goats, after all. Jesus tells them what they didn’t do, how they neglected him in his time of great need—when he was hungry, when he was thirsty. They didn’t help; they didn’t offer; they didn’t pitch in or show up. But they ask, “When was it that we saw you and didn’t help?” The implication being that had they known it was going to be on the test, they would have studied. Had they known those needy ones were important, they would have jumped up to help out.
Of course, we expect such goat-ish behavior from the goats. But then, hang on a minute. Didn’t their question sound familiar by the time we got to it? Hadn’t it been asked before? It was baa baa-ed by the sheep, even before the goats were confronted. Really? The sheep didn’t know either? “When was it that we saw you . . . ?” What was it? Tell us. We must has missed it; we must have missed it in our busyness to help. In our attention to the job at hand, we didn’t realize the gravity of the moment. We thought we were just helping. We thought we were just serving. We didn’t realize that we were worshiping too.
There are those who don’t like this story. They are afraid that it might lead to works righteousness, which means it might give us the idea that we can earn our place in the kin-dom we long for. If we do good works, if we labor long and hard, then God will reward us and give us entry into the gates of heaven. And you have to agree, it does sound like that.
There are those who go to great lengths to tell us that we can’t earn our salvation; that it comes as a gift from God, by grace through faith. And that any sense that we can pile up enough good works to earn it is not just misguided, it is dangerous; it is heresy. It is a dangerous mode of thinking that says my fate is in my hands; when in fact, it is always in God’s hands. And God’s hands are big enough to, well, “He’s got the whole world in those hands.” Remember? And we can trust in that.
So, do we nod and wink at Matthew’s story as misguided somehow? Or a mystery beyond our understanding? Because it sounds like works righteousness. Well, it would sound like that, if it weren’t for the questions. “When was it that we saw you? When was it that we were helping you? When was it that you were present in a difficult moment of caring or a joyous moment of thanksgiving? When was it?” Those questions are what keeps this story from being about earning our way into God’s kingdom. Because evidently the sheep weren’t doing what they were doing in order to get into heaven. They were doing it because they learned to love somewhere. They learned to care somewhere. They learned to give and love and serve somewhere. They were doing it, in other words, because they were already a part of the kingdom. They were doing it as a response to salvation, not a means to earn it or be worthy of it.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he gave two. Love God and love neighbor. You can’t, Jesus says, separate them. You can’t love God and not love neighbor; it just doesn’t work that way. Grace received has to be grace shared; that’s what makes it grace. Jesus was saying to the sheep, “You have shown that you received grace because you lived it out in your everyday life.” So, welcome home. Welcome to the glory.
When was it? And his answer was “whenever.” Whenever you did it to them, you did it to me. Whenever you loved, you loved me. Whenever you cared, you cared for me. When it was easy and good, it was easy and good with me. When it was hard and painful, it was hard and painful with me. When was it? Whenever. He is there. His glory is there.