When discussing the Christian call to service, we often hear references to Matthew 25, where Jesus speaks of a King who separates “sheep” from “goats” – those who are willing from those who refuse.
To the sheep, the King offers the following:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 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.
To the goats, the King says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
It’s all very hearty, but the final line is what seems to stick in popular discourse: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
It leads to a rather powerful tilting of the human order: Service to others is also service to God. Yet far too often we limit our view of such service, confining it to the realms of private charity, church ministry, personal relationships, or political activism. But although these are areas where the parable certainly applies, in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster adds another realm to the mix.
Work is service to others, he argues, and thus, work is service to God. He interprets Matthew 25 accordingly:
The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!
Is the Lord talking here about work? Yes, I’ve come to think so.
After a closer look at the textual implications, DeKoster offers a series of simple applications to demonstrate the how behind the what.
The following lists are pulled directly from DeKoster’s commentary, which proceeds according to the specific necessities Jesus speaks to. In the book, he includes much more than these lists provide, but the lists themselves are still particularly helpful in illustrating the overarching point: opportunities for Christian service abound, and often in areas you least expect.
1. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.
“God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in:
- wholesale or retail foods
- kitchens or restaurants
- food transportation or the mass production of food items
- manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries
- innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible
2. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
“The Lord is ‘thirsty’ wherever water is needed and is served by all who knit the sleeve of civilization by working in:
- municipal or private water services
- purifying waters
- exploration for or desalinization of water
- well-drilling, pipe-laying, plumbing installation, or maintenance
- manufacturing or servicing water-related equipment
- working in the countless water-related goods and service industries
3. I needed clothes and you clothed me.
“Here Jesus is saying: I was in all who need shelter and clothing, and you are working in:
- building and repairing of dwellings
- sales of clothing and shelter items
- fire or police or military protection of property
- real estate and insurance
- the (who knows how many) goods and service occupations related to shelter and comfort”
4. I was sick and you looked after me.
“Human health thrives on the boundary between the physical and the mental. And the Lord says, ‘I was sick,’ and you work in:
- medical services
- counseling, visiting, healing
- the making or selling of medicines or in related research
- health insurance
- serving others through working in any of the numerous physical or mental health-related occupations”
5. I was a stranger and you invited me in.
“‘I was a stranger,’ the Lord says, for all who seek communion and communication, and you work:
- for a telephone company
- at delivering the mail
- in the church
- at keeping cars moving, roads open, and commercial means of travel running
- in the media and on TV
- in any of the innumerable avenues of service that keep people in communication with each other and the world”
6. I was in prison and you came to visit me.
“God chooses to be found also among social ‘outcasts’…and you work in:
- social services, professional or voluntary
- law or the courts on behalf of justice
- politics and government
- providing employment
- human rehabilitation
- any of the liberating services that so many desperately need”
Though these lists are extensive, they are not exhaustive. God is knitting an elaborate and diverse civilization through the work human hands, and more importantly, is changing hearts through the process, calling us to view and approach our work as the sacrifice it was designed to be.
“To work is to love—both God and neighbor,” DeKoster writes. “For the ‘love’ required by the Bible is the service of God through the service of man. And because God wills to be served through our service of others, he provides us with civilization to facilitate our working at our best.”
The future of civilization should be oriented around Christian love, but if we remember Jesus’ initial words, this is ultimately about the final judgement, i.e. the path to eternity. “The parable is teaching us that we will ‘see’ at last what day-by-day living is all about,” DeKoster writes. “It’s a matter of becoming sheep or becoming goat. That is the meaning of time spent on the job and of time spent on all else.”
In striving to be sheep, then, let us not confine our willingness and obedience to the spare hours of the day, but rather expand our imaginations to the full web of economic interaction and cultural engagement. The scope and range of Christian service is deep and wide, and the least of these are probably closer than you think.