Can I admit that I don’t always do what Jesus says when he urges me to give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and visit people when they’re in prison?
My record is better in welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked — as long as introducing myself to a newcomer at a meetup event and passing along clothes to a charitable agency counts. And if giving to the food pantry on occasion, visiting a friend in the hospital, or paying taxes to maintain an infrastructure that supplies water to city residents helps me tick the boxes on the checklist of feeding, watering, and loving people, then maybe I’m doing okay.
Sheep are Separated from the Goats
In Matthew 25:31-46 (World English Bible), I find the passage reminding me that I fall short:
But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’
The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Why Matthew 25:31-46 Matters to Me
I’m bringing up this topic for the following reasons:
- There’s more to Jesus’s message than I noticed at first;
- I want to live clearly on the side of righteousness;
- I have a few questions about my responsibilities … though I’m starting to grasp that Jesus cares less about checklists and more about people.
First, let me affirm that “no one is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10, World English Bible) “for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, World English Bible). I rely on God’s grace for my righteousness.
Still, what jumped out at me recently is embedded in the “when did we see you” phrase.
It’s intriguing that both the unrighteous and the righteous didn’t recognize Jesus.
The Goats Don’t Seem to Notice Needs in the Community
The goats, the unrighteous, are oblivious to or unmoved by other people’s needs, or both. Here, let me share my strengths and confess my weaknesses. I’m sensitive to needs. But, I’ll admit that I haven’t acted as swiftly as I should (or, in some cases, at all). Further, I’m often frustrated at my inability to portray the depth and urgency of needs to others who I’d like to enlist in reaching out with me. I can act alone but relish the idea of acting as a community.
As an example, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I know someone who has mentioned difficult life events, leading to recurring problems. There were unexpected job losses; an overwhelming number of home repairs, including some failed ones that led to more costs and inconveniences; illnesses, some of which have been accompanied by hospitalizations; and other unfortunate events, which have snowballed into near devastation. Still, this person is generous with his time and money, volunteering and giving to others even less fortunate.
During a publicized crisis, several gave but many others seemed to misunderstand or ignore an obvious cry for help. What’s troubling to me is the lack of recognition that someone is suffering at all. In this situation, close to home, only recently have others begun to recognize the difficulties and respond generously.
Maybe we (my friends and I) ignore or shut out problems because we know it’s difficult, even impossible, to respond to every need, especially during an era in which pleas from every corner of the world are publicized.
The Sheep Are Also Oblivious, Yet Faithful
Meanwhile, there are sheep, righteous people who give freely to the least of these while at the same time not recognizing them as Jesus. I’m wondering how they respond tirelessly to the hungry, thirsty, sick, unclothed, outsider, and imprisoned without being overwhelmed.
It’s possible the righteous don’t label friends as rich or poor, hungry or well-fed, parched or with plenty of water to drink, chained or unchained, healthy or sick, spiritually starved or spiritually full. Maybe they treat everyone well. They don’t live intentionally, meticulously planning every move, but act naturally, inspired by the Spirit. They throw parties with plenty of food and drink, make friends with the new guy and lady, and travel to visit buddies wherever they are.
When Jesus says we should do something (and again, I could focus more on doing and less on just noticing), it makes sense to begin by either recognizing the need or being so generous that we act without fully realizing the impact of our actions. For example, we may extend a job offer to a someone who needs work (while thinking that we’re helping ourselves by getting a new employee) or befriend someone who’s lonely (while being glad to make a new friend).
Jesus Asks Us to Attend to Spiritual and Physical Needs
As I reflect on this passage, I notice another possible meaning. It’s prompted by a Bible study, the Images of the Spirit and the image of water. Jesus gives living water and perhaps he sees spiritual thirst in addition to physical thirst. Not sharing the good news could mean that I’m not giving drink to the thirsty.
Further, if the least of these “brothers” indicates fellow Christians, then I understand that I should both 1) express my needs and 2) give freely.
Respond Naturally and Be a Good Steward
About living on the side of righteousness: simple obedience could allow me to join and stay with the sheep. I could give without thinking, analyzing the economic context, or silently evaluating another person’s spending patterns and priorities. Looking just at this passage, I see that Jesus isn’t asking me to apply my analytical skills to solving a problem; he’s asking me to give food to the hungry.
Still, here’s the rub: giving, sometimes, can lead to greater helplessness and hopelessness as the recipient takes on less responsibility for his or her well-being. I don’t think Jesus wants me to give in a way that enables someone to continue in a self-destructive lifestyle. God calls me to be a good steward of resources. At the same time, he calls me to take risks, not just with talents but with people.
So I return to the idea that sheep listen to the shepherd and follow in a way that is natural and unassuming. They’re focused on relationships. They’re blissfully unaware of their righteousness.
What does this passage and my understanding mean for me today? Here’s my take: 1) keep noticing; 2) act on what I notice and understand; 3) label people less (or not at all); and 4) love people more.
What about you? How do you think Jesus wants you to respond to this passage?