Getting on God's Good Side

How do we get into heaven? There’s an age-old debate about this topic. And basically, it boils down to two options: by works, or by faith.

“Works” means that if you do enough good deeds, you will earn your way into heaven. Whether we know it or not, that’s the way that most of us operate. We like to think of heaven as populated by nice people. It’s the basis of every single “pearly gates” joke.

I always think of Don Novello’s character Fr. Guido Sarducci whose theory was that when we got to heaven, St. Peter would tally up all of our days, and then pay us accordingly. Then, he would go through our sins one by one, and we would have to pay for our sins. And if you still had some cash left over, you were in. Sarducci says he has this dream where he’s “just 35 cents short…”

That’s works’ righteousness. If we do enough good, if the good outweighs the bad, if we measure up on the divine tally, then we’re in.

During the Reformation, our theological ancestors took another route. It was faith that achieved our salvation for us. They particularly saw this in Paul’s writings, especially the verse from Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

If Scripture was to have any place at all in a church being reformed, then the weight of this text mattered far more than church teaching.

There are, of course, problems with both. Works righteousness tends to put the judgment in our hands. Think about our judicial system. Some things are obviously bad: murder, theft, deception. But then there are many other acts which aren’t so neatly delineated. Take war, for example. We’re not supposed to kill. But then there’s this stream of Christian thought called “just war”. And then there’s another Christian heritage of pacifism. So which is right? Or are they both equally so? How can two faithful people make the opposite choice about the same question?

Works righteousness isn’t nearly as straightforward as we think it might be. And this paves the way for faith. But faith righteousness can quickly become a kind of cerebral works righteousness. There is only one correct baptism. There is only one true church. You have to be born again. You have to accept the tenets of the Nicene Creed – but which one? The one where the Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son? Don’t hesitate, because your salvation might just be hanging in the balance here!

The truth is that both sides have their flaws. And either one pushed to the extreme is a recipe for disaster. If it’s all about works, then we better get on the same page about what is good and what is not. And once we’ve done that, we need to be sure to keep folks from falling off the right path, restricting their freedoms. After all, it’s for their own good, so that they can get into heaven.

If it’s all about faith, then works matter not at all. We can cavort wildly, because ultimately what we do doesn’t matter; it’s what we believe. So let’s eat, drink, be merry, lie, cheat, steal, kill! If it’s about faith and faith alone, we’re either in, or out. So let’s not sweat the details.

And that’s where this morning’s lesson comes in. At first glance, it’s a perfect proof-text for the works folks. The righteous sheep are the ones who fed the hungry, sated the thirsty, housed the homeless, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. The unrighteous goats, on the other hand, don’t do any of these things. They ignore the vulnerable: the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, imprisoned.

The moral of the story is: do the right thing!

Or is it?

There are two key moments in this text. The first is that Jesus puts himself as the object of their compassion: “I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned. And you either did or didn’t take care of me.” This is not a simple moral question of how we treat our fellow human beings. This is a much bigger question of how we, by extension, treat the God-given dignity, the Christ within them. It’s about how we honor the divine, the sacred, the holy.

That’s the first moment. In other words, when we ignore those on the margins, we’re not just ignoring them. It is as though we are ignoring the very presence of God! And if that’s the basis of our works righteousness, can any of us stand up and believe ourselves worthy to be counted among the righteous?

Which brings us to the second moment: the surprise of both the sheep and the goats. Those who seem to pass the test don’t even know that they have done it. But neither do those who have failed. They are both equally confounded that they have or have not made the mark. It is, simply put, an extension of who they are. Those who feed and serve and clothe and house and visit do so because they wouldn’t know any other way to be. And those who don’t, well, they probably don’t see any point in doing those things.

Which are we? Sheep? Goats? A little bit of both? Have you ever helped someone without knowing it? Have you ever stepped on someone’s toes without realizing it?

When it gets right down to it, I’m not sure this is a story with an easy either/or message. If we read it that way, then we try and figure out who we are. If you’re convinced you’re a sheep, then you might just be a narcissist. And if you’re convinced you’re a goat, then you’re probably no less in need of therapy than the sheep. But if you recognize elements of both in who you are and what you do, then you’re probably just a plain old human being, swinging between sin and grace on a daily basis.

What that means, I hope, is that we begin to recognize that this whole question about whether or not we’ve achieved the right level of righteousness has more to do with God than with us. It’s Jesus who separates the sheep from the goats, identifying them as such. It’s God who is the shepherd Ezekiel preached about, and it is that same God the shepherd who gathers the sheep from the hillsides where they’ve been scattered.

Friends, every day we are in need of that God-given grace. And every day we live out that grace. Which, at least to me, is the most freeing possible scenario! We’re never going to get it 100% right; but rather than sulk in failure, let’s feel free to try and succeed! Listen for the voice of the shepherd, calling to you. Dedicate both time and space to recognizing the God-given dignity within yourself, as well as within your fellow human being.

Don’t sweat the thirty-five cents. Trust the riches of grace that overflow: today and always.