When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…
Early in our second week in Uganda, after a rare day of rest, our team leader, Amanda, asked me to lead the team in a short devotional. I felt led to focus on Matthew 25:31ff. In this text, Jesus is teaching about God’s expectations of His children and the judgment that awaits those who don’t take Him seriously. He has just finished talking about the dangers of missing our bridegroom’s (Jesus’) coming if we’re not paying attention (vv1-13) and about suffering God’s wrath if we fail to wisely invest what He’s given to us (vv14-30). Now, Jesus turns to a story about two groups of people: those who go out of their way to care for others, and those who do not. He calls them “sheep and goats,” respectively, and declares that the Shepherd will ultimately separate these two groups – one to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v34), and the other to be sent away “cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v41).
So, Jesus is deadly serious (as usual), and makes it clear that the stakes in His Kingdom are high (as usual). But how, in this particular story, does the Good Shepherd distinguish between the sheep and the goats … between those who will inherit life and those who will be cast out? The deciding factor is whether or not we love others. When someone is hungry, do we feed them? When they are thirsty, do we give them something to drink? When we see a stranger, do we welcome them? When someone is naked, do we scare up some clothes for them to wear? Do we visit those who are sick or in prison? If you can answer yes to these questions, then you, my friend, resemble Jesus … who had everything, but emptied Himself and poured Himself out for those who had nothing (Philippians 2:5-8). Even to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
Applying Jesus’ Story
First, how does this passage, in general, relate to my trip to Uganda? Given my recent short-term missions trip, where am I in Jesus’ story? Does the fact that I went to East Africa, walked among really poor people, helped them get food, played with and loved on children, preached the gospel, worked with addicts, prayed over the sick in local hospitals, visited prisoners to share God’s word and pray with them, supported poor farmers in starting new businesses, etc … does all that mean that I have fulfilled Jesus’ requirements in Matthew 25? Can I check the box and consider myself to be a high-quality candidate for sheep-ness?
Um … no.
This passage isn’t about what we’ve done, it’s about who we are. It’s not about one trip anywhere, it’s about a way of being that intersects with our everyday lives. In other words, Jesus is demanding a lifestyle in this story, not an event. Get on a plane or don’t. Go far away or walk across the street. It could be something a bunch of people in your church will find amazing or something no one will ever know about. He’s calling for a pattern in your life – an everyday, ongoing decision to be a certain way, not to do a certain thing on a certain day.
Am I the kind of person who buys homeless guys cheeseburgers or walks by them on the phone without giving them a second thought? Am I the kind of person who, when he hears someone is sick or hurting, hurts a little too, thinks to stop and pray, and maybe even visits them occasionally? Am I someone who stops to help an elderly person struggling with a grocery cart (or whatever), or do I have places to be … every time? Do I know the first thing about what goes on inside prisons and hospitals, or is that someone else’s problem? Have I spent any time at all with people who are very different from me and live in contexts I don’t really understand, or is my life (and my church) a place to gather with people just like me?
Jesus is saying that our answers to these questions tell Him who we are. Are we like Him – giving to others of ourselves – or like Satan – taking from others for ourselves? Because a tree will be known by its fruit (Luke 6:43-45). And a child of God will be known by the manner of her life with regard to these things.
And my second question from the passage…
Who are “the least of these”?
When I was giving this devotional in Uganda, our team leader Amanda asked, “Who are ‘the least of these’ in this story?” At the time, I was struck by the question, and didn’t really have an answer for her. But now I do, and here’s what I would say…
By referring to “the least of these” in His story, Jesus is making the point that no one is beneath being the recipient of the kind of care He’s describing. The person who is hungry or thirsty or estranged or naked or sick or imprisoned … that person isn’t necessarily “the least of these.” Neither is the person who feeds or clothes or welcomes or visits … or the one who doesn’t. Jesus is saying that, at any moment, each of us … any of us … all of us could be “the least of these.”
In other words, there are no limits to the kind of person we should love. Jesus does not engage in conversation about someone’s “deserving” our compassion or love or sacrifice. He’s saying that it’s not about the other person, it’s about us. Just like you didn’t earn His grace when Jesus left heaven and died on a cross for you, neither do others deserve whatever (very, very small thing, by comparison) we might give up for them. Because Jesus has already sacrificed everything for him, even the person we might be tempted to think is the least worthy to receive love or compassion or an act of kindness from us … that person represents the Son of God, who counted him “worthy” of His very life. And that person, if she surrenders her life to Him, will be “worthy” to be represented by the Son of God before the throne of His Father.
The most hardened criminal … the worst sex offender … the least attractive person you can imagine … the most annoying and frustrating person you’ve ever met … the most sick … the one with the least physical (or intellectual or emotional or spiritual) resources … For every single one of these people, and a billion more, Jesus left heaven, became a curse, poured out His blood, and is willing to stand in their place, bearing the brunt of all their sin. And He did it so that, when God asks, “Who is this?”, the answer might be “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
So if we aren’t also willing to love them, then we can’t say that we love Jesus either.
Are the desperately poor people I met in Uganda “the least of these?” Maybe. But if they are, it’s not because they have far fewer physical resources than I do. In Jesus’ economy, I could be far poorer and more naked than they are. Sometimes, those who appear to have the most are in fact the ones with the least, and sometimes they don’t even know it (Revelation 3:15-22). It’s about different economies — mine vs. Jesus’, this world’s vs. the Kingdom of God’s. Even the person who is “least” in my twisted, sinful, human economy is worth Jesus’ love (demonstrated by His blood). So, he has to be worth mine too. And if he isn’t … if he’s naked and I do not love him enough to give him a shirt or she’s hungry and I don’t care if she starves, etc. … If there’s no place at my table for them, then there will be no place at the Father’s table for me. It’s as simple as that.
Then, how shall we live?
We can’t fix everything that’s broken in this world. And that’s okay, because it’s not my job to “fix” things. God is the One doing the fixing, and He’s far better at it than we are. Ultimately, He will restore everything that is broken and make all things new (Revelation 21:5). Just you wait; it’s going to be amazing! But what people often miss is that we are the tools in His hands to do so, the members of His body which act under His headship, and the sons and daughters He is making more like Him everyday (not just in our being but in our carrying out the work He’s given us). So He sends us to love and care for and help others … just like He would, except there’s millions of us “doing even greater things than He did” (John 14:12-14) when Jesus walked the earth.
No, I can’t fix everything, and neither can you. But I can be the kind of person who routinely turns aside to help in Jesus’ name, like the Good Samaritan did (Luke 10:25-37). It would be pretty hard to “turn aside” every time, but most of us don’t err on the side of “overdoing it” when it comes to helping others … especially those we don’t know and who can’t give us anything in return. But for children of God, for those who are self-proclaimed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, it should be the routine pattern of our lives to take the time and energy and dollars to care for those around us who need a hand. If the pattern of my life is to walk by a person who is sick or poor or naked or hungry without even noticing them, or to notice and disregard, or to say “next time” every single time, or to “buy God off” with a check while safely never interacting with hurting people … then I might have need for some serious concern whether Jesus will recognize me at all, when I finally meet Him face to face.
Have you ever bought a homeless guy a sandwich? What would you say is your ratio over the last 5 years of “buy a sandwich” to “walk by with a perfectly justifiable (in your own mind) reason not to”? Is it 1:5? 1:10? 1:1,000? Zero? What do you think Jesus’ ratio would be? Of course we can’t do it all, and we can’t do it every time … but we can do something, and we can do it regularly, right? And there’s a LOT of us. What if we were all paying attention and straining every sinew to increasingly be like Jesus?
And that’s the point: Are you training your mind to think and your heart to desire and your hands to behave LIKE JESUS? The Spirit changes you, but you are responsible to “cooperate” with Him (Philippians 2:12-13), and in everyday life I think that looks like “training” … doing something that you can do today to be able to do something tomorrow that you can’t do today. See also 1 Timothy 4:6-10. So we pray and we submit and we lead our hearts and we allow God to renew our minds (Romans 12:2) … and we notice those in need, even “the least of these,” and we turn aside to love on them a little.
[A man enamored with his own self-righteousness], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”