“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
Matthew 25:40 (NKJV)
The picture of Judgment Day that Jesus paints in his Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) probably shocked a lot of His original hearers. It may come as a surprise to some of us as well.
To pious Jews of the first century, there could be no question about the way this story was supposed to go. In the standard telling, the sheep always represented Israel – the faithful flock of God’s Chosen People. The goats, on the other hand, were the Gentiles – unbelievers, sinners, tax collectors, and the like. Such was the established motif. But here, as in so many other instances, Christ chose to break the rules.
Jaws must have dropped when listeners realized that He was taking this familiar narrative down a very different path. Eyes must have popped when, instead of following precedent, He made a distinction between the two groups based not on religious orthodoxy but on something very few people had ever thought about: the ability to discern worth in the apparently worthless.
To the sheep – those destined to “inherit the kingdom” – the King in Jesus’ account says, “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in …” In other words, he tells them, “You recognized Me in the dregs of humanity.” And when the righteous ask Him, “When did we do this for you?” He responds, “To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (verse 40).
The italicized phrase is the crux of the matter. Anyone might give a drink to a thirsty friend or relative. Many would volunteer to serve a meal to a hungry dignitary. Everyone wants to do something ingratiating for the rich, the powerful, and the important. But for “the least of these?” With those four words Christ demolished his audience’s assumptions about the nature of human worth. In effect, He made goats into sheep and turned the world upside-down.
Times and assumptions have changed, of course. But there’s a twist in this story for us as well. Nowadays most Christians know – or at least they’ve been told many times – that it’s important to give to the poor, minister to the hurting, reach out to rejects, and care for the needy. In America, even non-believers are big on compassion and generosity. Famous celebrities establish charitable foundations. Movie stars adopt homeless children. Pop singers distribute aid to hungry kids in Africa. It’s all good, and it all makes an important difference in the world. And yet, when everything’s been said and done, it lacks something.
What is it? Simply this. In the midst of all our giving and helping, we’ve missed the point of Jesus’ parable. We’ve forgotten that it’s not the down-and-outers who need us, but we who need them. We’ve missed the message that, spiritually speaking, the blind, the lame, the weak, and the incapacitated have a huge advantage over the rest of us – as Christ expresses it in the first Beatitude, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). All too often, we do the good we do with a secret sense of superiority, skipping over the fundamental truth that Christian giving is not so much a matter of helping as it is of identifying with the helpless.
It’s a lesson we desperately need to learn.