In the great discourse regarding the separation of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus refers to the kinds of actions, done in obediential faith that works through love, that demonstrates those who truly love him and those who do not. I have heard a dozen different ways of explaining, or explaining away, these verses over the course of my lifetime. Many consign them to Israel and how we treat the Jews. Others say they must be narrowly limited to the actions of the apostles themselves. Others say this is about doing these deeds for those who are being persecuted for being followers of Jesus. And still others say that only if we know the person we are helping to be a "brother or sister" does this text truly apply. There is some element of truth in each of these ideas, as there often is in such exegetical debates.

But I wonder, as I often wonder about such things: "What do we miss by this kind of narrowing of interpretation? And, further, what do we gain by opening the text up to a wide angle view of all our actions done for Christ, in faithful discipleship?" It seems to me that when verse 36 says, "I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" the whole point is that such actions done for Christ to any person made in God’s image are done to Christ. This is essentially how Mother Teresa of Calcutta understood this text in her Indian context and thus how and why she practiced what she did for years. And it is the general way that the Christian tradition has always understood these words. When you care for the basic human needs of the poor, when you care for the sick, and when you visit prisoners, you demonstrate Christ’s love in the most profound and, just as clearly, the most simple way. What you do for them you do for Christ. Thus verse 40 adds, "Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me." Even if the person is not one of Christ’s sheep (and we do not know this for sure since in every case those who belong to him finally are not known to us) if we do these actions in his name and for the love of Christ, we do it to Him. This point seems basic and quite obvious unless we strive to create ways to avoid it.

I thought about this again today because I have had a long-time interest and ministry in prisons. I have preached in jails and visited some major prisons. (I am not reporting this to promote my own piety but reflecting upon the words of Jesus afresh.) As I wrote an inmate today, a brother that I have never actually met, I asked myself, "Why am I doing this when there are so many more important things to be done today that could reach hundreds more people?" But there I was hand-writing one guy who prays for me and is incarcerated far away.

My inmate friend wrote me on January 1 these words from his California prison:

"My holidays were quite pleasant because the Lord has taught me how to be content and peaceful in such circumstances, by ever keeping my focus upon him. We have not had a Protestant chaplain here for nearly two years, therefore as Christmas approached, we were unsure about having a Christmas Day sevrice. Several days before, the Lord blessed me with being chosen to bring the message for that service. Unfortunately, on Christmas Day, the prison was short staffed and we were locked in our housing units. In no way was I discouraged or disappointed because in preparing my sermon, I had spent two days and nights in the presence of the Lord. What a blessed joy it is to live in the Word my brother, as you very well know."

This brother goes on to ask me if an "old thief" could someday become a prison chaplain? I told him that if an old slave trader and liar like John Newton could become an Anglican minister and write "Amazing Grace" he could surely pursue this call upon his life freely.

Who knows, I may have done more good by writing this man in prison today than I did in anything else that I will do all day. I actually think I did this to Jesus himself if I believe the words that He spoke in Matthew 25, which I do. It just seems to me to be the right way to understand what he plainly tells us there. I will also be on the lookout today for the poor and the sick. Unless I make deliberate choices to include them in my life I will surely ignore them since I do not live in a poor community or find myself looking for sick people day-by-day.

My prayer: "God help me today to have the eyes to see the poor, a heart to care for the sick and a plan to reach out to the imprisoned. Give me the determination and the will to serve them as if I were really serving you, since that is exactly what you told me I would be doing when I serve them. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen."

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  1. Nathan January 12, 2007 at 9:40 am

    A wonderful reminder of priorities and obedienece as we begin this new year.

  2. Helen January 12, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    John wrote: “As I wrote an inmate today, a brother that I have never actually met, I asked myself, “Why am I doing this when there are so many more important things to be done today that could reach hundreds more people?” But there I was hand-writing one guy who prays for me and is incarcerated far away.”
    John, I think it’s fascinating that the choice to spend time on/with just one individual is often made by Jesus in the gospels.
    I find that reassuring.

  3. Bob Myers January 14, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    As a PCA pastor, I am provoked to good works and inspired by your writing. How much more attention do we need to give to those things Jesus has clearly spelled out.
    Thank you John!

  4. Steve Scott January 16, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    Your wording is interesting and telling of our society. You did not say that you don’t live in a community that has poor people within it, you said you don’t live in a community that is itself poor (poor is an adjective that describes the community, indicating a vast majority of that community would be poor).
    During my last straight read-through of the four gospels in my bible reading plan, something struck me that I’ve never noticed before. The passage was about the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears. I had to read the story again. There it was. This occurred in the Pharisee’s house that invited Him to dine. How did a woman of such ill repute gain access to the house of a Pharisee? Since then, I’ve noticed this commonality in gospel stories. Many things occurred in people’s houses, and many times, all classes of people were present, from “sinners” to Pharisees, rich and poor. This Pharisee even despised the woman’s character who was in his house.
    Israel, even with its many theological and moral faults, was a nation of mixed class in their communities. The OT contains gleaning laws and many other such laws that put poor people at the direct mercy of the rich and their property. The poor could go directly onto the property of the rich to glean. The rich and poor lived together. Household servants were common.
    Now for our society. I should mention up front that I’m a career professional (architect) in the building industry in the SF Bay Area. I’ve only heard maybe two Christians ever address what I’m about to say. And I don’t understand why so few. But, our societal structure has as its foundation, zoning laws. Every place in our land has them; cities, counties, townships. These (unbiblical, I believe) zoning laws prescribe a minimum lot size for every neighborhood. With land values what they are, the class of people able to afford these minimum lot sizes is, as a result, also mandated by law. Additionally, zoning laws limit some areas to single-family residences. Areas of cities and counties are also divided into zones of single-family, multi-family apartments/condos, etc. So, not only are minimum wealth categories mandated by law, where people live is also mandated by law. The economics roughly follow this over time. We really are NOT free to live where we choose. We are segregated by class according to man’s law.
    Poor people have little choice with respect to which community they want to live in. Two families can’t just live in one house (it’s aginst the law in many places), neither can a standard lot be divided into, let’s say, five smaller lots affordable to the poor. Rich neighbors wouldn’t have it. So they’re often forced to live in the same communities as criminals and those with no self-control. As a result, we are more likely to confuse the poor with the immoral, lessening our zeal to help the poor. I can recall numerous times before my conversion where several families tried living in one house in one of my neighborhoods. Neighbors engaged in gossip, and people despised such neighbors, even though they might be harming nobody else, just trying to be economical with life. “This IS a single-family neighborhood, you know.”
    Zoning laws also dictate locations of business and commerce. So, even though rich communities have effectively legislated the poor out of their area, the rich still demand retail and other services that require low wage jobs. Where are these people going to come from? This is where traffic jams and rush hour come from, the daily commute. My grandfather had a life principle, he would never live anywhere he couldn’t walk to work. For me, I’ve never been remotely able to live in a community where I’ve worked. The Bay Area has a crisis. Upscale cities (we have many of them) don’t have their essential employees like police, fire, parks and maintenance living in them. They can’t afford it. Only recently has my county relaxed its zoning laws to allow single family neighborhoods the opportunity for property owners to build an additional mother-in-law unit on their property.
    Prison is similar. Instead of the biblical law of restitution for a crime, our society decides to use incarceration as punishment. How can a criminal work to pay back his victim when he’s behind bars? How can anybody minister to them when they’re behind bars? Incarceration is simply a form of state slavery, with minimal access available to those who might care.
    My basic point here, and it’s a sad one, is that we have isolated ourselves from the poor whether we wanted to or not, and now we’re in the position of having to be creative, diligent and sacraficial in searching them out. We don’t live next door to them so we can’t have constant, day-to-day contact with them to help them live better. We can’t say, “hey, come over for a barbecue.” Jesus said His burdens were light. Well, we’ve made them heavy for ourselves. Obeying God isn’t so simple anymore. Salvation by law is really death by law. Lord help us.

  5. Joel Shaffer November 22, 2007 at 9:46 am

    I just found your blog site. As someone who has incarnated the gospel in the inner-city among the poor for eighteen years, I do believe it does matter how we interpret the “least of these” from Matthew 25. Mother Teresa did not merely believe God’s image was in the poor, but the mysterious presence of Jesus himself!
    I have seen poor people do evil things to other poor people. I have had a desperate poor person point a gun at my head. I’m sorry, but that is not the Jesus that I know. That poor person was not Jesus in distressing diguise.
    Please also understand that I am not advocating a position where we blame the poor for all of their problems. I see in my neighborhood evidence of both systematic, structures of sin against the poor and also individual sinful behavior within the poor. We ought to make the difference between God’s perfect image (Jesus Christ) and humanity’s broken image.
    The Mother Teresa view (often called the sacramental view by Tony Campolo) leads us to romanticizing the spiritual condition of the poor, neutering the gospel preached to the poor, and even a strange form of idolatry (I have seen people revere the poor in a doting way in their service to the poor because in their mind, that is actually Jesus). This should be some food for thought…..

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