As Much as You Did to the Least of These My Brothers
Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year| Matthew 25:31-46| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| November 13, 2022
The Gospel lesson appointed for the second to last Sunday in the Church Year focuses on the final judgment, which everyone should contemplate with great sobriety. Although many scoff and doubt that Christ will ever return and judge the living and the dead, this is a fact that Scripture repeatedly states. Christ Jesus will return and judge all nations. Some will go to hell to eternal punishment. Others will go to heaven to enjoy eternal life. Those who get distracted by the things of this world and ignore this teaching are in grave danger to be unprepared and sentenced to eternal punishment at Christ’s return.
What is interesting about Jesus’ lesson in Matthew 25, when all nations will stand before him and be separated to His left and right, is that it appears that this final judgment is based on their works. He tells the righteous that they will inherit the kingdom because they showed Him mercy, while He tells the cursed that they will go to hell, because they showed no mercy. And because it is always man’s desire to erase faith and the saving work of Jesus Christ and to promote the works of men, many modern scholars claim that Jesus here teaches that people will be saved and inherit eternal life if they will only show love and mercy to others. In other words, you don’t need faith or Jesus, you just need to do good works and you will be saved.
However, this teaching must be rejected. Scripture clearly teaches that sinners are justified and saved apart from their own works by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, who has made satisfaction for their sins on the cross (Romans 3:23-28; Ephesians 2:8-9). St. Matthew records that Jesus would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21; 20:28). Even in this lesson, Jesus teaches that the kingdom was prepared for the blessed before the foundation of the earth, which excludes any of their works. Jesus is not teaching that a person is saved by his works. Rather, Jesus teaches that a saved person produces beautiful fruit. He is pointing out the fruit of those who have been granted saving faith.
The fruit, which will give evidence of saving faith on the Last Day is showing mercy to one of the least of Jesus’ brothers. An important question is, “Who are the least of these Jesus’ brothers?” Those who claim that people will be saved regardless of their faith, if they show mercy to others, argue that the least of Jesus’ brothers are anyone who are downtrodden or suffering. And while it is true that Christians should love their neighbors as themselves, even love their enemies, and that some by being kind to strangers have even entertained angels unaware, Jesus never calls unbelievers His brothers. Rather, even when His biological mother and brothers came to fetch Him, He asked the crowd, “Who are my mother and who are my brothers?” and then stretching His hand toward His disciples He said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50).
So, the least of Jesus’ brothers are Jesus’ disciples. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, after His resurrection Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee.” (Matthew 28:10) And later, when the eleven disciples meet Jesus in Galilee, Jesus tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) So, here, Jesus tells His brothers to go out to all nations, making disciples of them by baptizing them and preaching the Gospel to them and here at the final Judgment, Jesus will have all nations gathered before Him (the nations to whom He sent His brothers to make disciples), and He will say to those on His right, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” And to those on His left, He will say, “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
If you give food, water, or clothes to one of Jesus’ brothers when he is hungry, thirsty, or naked, you have given to Jesus. If you visit and care for one of Jesus’ brothers when he is sick or in prison, then you have cared for Jesus Himself. If you welcome a stranger, because he is Jesus’ brother, then you welcome Jesus. This is exactly what Jesus said to His disciples when He sent them out to preach the first time, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. … And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40, 42)
The least of Jesus’ brothers are His Apostles and disciples who proclaim the Gospel. Those who receive one of Jesus’ disciples, because he proclaims Jesus’ Gospel receives Jesus’ Himself. Whoever offers him a cup of cold water, gives a cup of water to Jesus Himself. By doing so, they show that they accept the Gospel that Jesus’ disciples preach.
This lesson from Jesus does not teach that we are saved on account of our works, rather Jesus points out the obvious good work that all His Christians will do. They will receive those who bring the Gospel to them. And it is important for both the hearer and for the preacher to recognize that the least of Jesus’ brothers are those who preach the Gospel.
It is important for the hearers, so that they know that salvation comes through hearing the Gospel and the Gospel comes through men preaching it. St. Paul articulates this in Romans 10, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (vss. 14-17) If you want to be saved, you must have faith in Christ. If you want faith in Christ, then you must hear the Gospel preached. If you are to hear the Gospel preached, you must have someone preach it to you. To despise the preacher and the preaching is to despise Christ Jesus and His Gospel.
Second, it is important for hearers to recognize the least of Jesus’ brothers as those who preach the Gospel, so that they will support the preaching of the Gospel. When Jesus first sent His disciples out to preach, He said, “Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.” (Matthew 10:9-10) Yet, he adds, “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Matthew 10:14-15) Jesus is not teaching that preachers should sell the Gospel, but rather that hearers should support the preaching of the Gospel so that preachers can focus on preaching and teaching. This is the way that God has designed for people to hear the saving Gospel. This also gives Christians the opportunity to separate themselves from their idols and prove what they truly find valuable. St. Paul explains it in Galatians 6, “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows that will he also reap.” (vs. 6)
So, when hearers recognize that they receive Christ when they receive His preachers, they value the Gospel as their greatest treasure on earth and produce good fruits to the glory and expansion of God’s kingdom.
It is important for preachers to recognize that they are the least of Jesus’ brothers, first, so that they remember that Jesus is with them. A preacher should not fear to proclaim the truth, because Jesus is always with His preaching. Jesus will grant success to His preaching by the power of the Holy Spirit. And a preacher should not fear to be rejected, because it is not him they are rejecting, but Christ who sent him.
Secondly, a preacher should recognize that he is the least of Jesus’ brothers so that he always preaches the Gospel and never his own opinions. People do not listen to a preacher to hear his own thoughts. And Jesus has not sent them to represent themselves. A preacher is only good if he faithfully proclaims the Gospel that Jesus has sent him to preach. A congregation does not need a pastor’s personality. Pastors should be interchangeable. It is not them the people need, but Jesus. And the people most certainly need Jesus. St. Paul instructs Timothy to persist in paying close attention to the teaching, for by so doing he will save both himself and his hearers. The Gospel of Jesus which a preacher preaches saves souls. The preacher must never forget that.
Thirdly, a preacher must recognize that he is the least of Jesus’ brothers, so that he knows what he must be willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t call them the least for nothing. They are the least, because the world hates them. Nearly every one of Jesus’ apostles was killed for preaching Christ. Throughout the history of the church, Christian preachers have been starved, imprisoned, exiled, and killed. And throughout church history, Christian preachers have had to depend on the charity of Christ’s flock to care for them in need. For a man to take up the task to preach the Gospel, he must be willing to go hungry, thirsty, naked, get sick, go to prison, and be a stranger for the sake of the Gospel. Christ will provide His remnant to care for His brothers in need.
This Gospel lesson demonstrates the difference between those who believe the Gospel and those who do not believe the Gospel. Those who do not believe the Gospel ignore Christ’s preachers. They do not value the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And they do not value those who preach it. And some even oppose the message with violence, reviling, imprisoning, and even killing those who preach it. Yet, those who believe the Gospel rejoice in it. They value it as their most precious treasure. They support those who preach the Gospel to them and share in their burdens. They support missionaries to proclaim the Gospel abroad. They believe Jesus’ words that when they receive those sent in His name, they receive Jesus Himself.
Those who believe the Gospel store up treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:20). Christ Jesus has purchased their salvation by His innocent suffering and death for their sins and His glorious resurrection, which proves that God is forever at peace with them. This means that sinners, who otherwise would be damned to hell, have certainty of eternal salvation delivered to them in words and received in the heart. On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will point out the obvious fruit, which proves that they have received this Gospel in faith. And they will inherit the kingdom, which God has prepared for them from before the foundation of the earth. And there, they will live forever. Amen.