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 service. 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.”
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."