“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40 (NIV)
Now, wait a minute. The Last time, you said, “God cares more about who I am than what I do.” “This verse if from Jesus’ parable of separating the sheep from the goats, and it sounds like God is deciding who gets into heaven based on what they did.” You’re right, this verse is from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. Let’s talk about the king’s decision.
Here is the parable:
Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 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, 36 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.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
In the parable, Jesus is talking about the time when he will decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. The parable seems to say that he will make his decision based on what a person has done, or their “works” and not based on who they are, like we talked about last week. There is another interpretation that I think fits the parable and is consistent with the pursuit of transformation over conformation.
Let’s start by looking at the group who Jesus says the righteous helped and the condemned ignored. They are the poor and marginalized. Jesus calls them “the least.” You know who they are, you see them outside your normal circle. We feel uncomfortable when we are around these folks. Nonetheless, Jesus implies that it is important for us to feed them, invite them in, clothe them, care for their physical needs, and visit them in jail. The righteous did these things and the condemned didn’t. The big question is, why? Why did the righteous help and the condemned not?
The answer to this question lies in rephrasing the question they asked in response to the King’s extravagant grace or extreme punishment. Both groups seem to respond to Jesus in the same way by asking “when” they got it right or when they got it wrong. I think if we expand their question a little, we find the key to unlocking this parable. The righteous are saying to Jesus, “We helped a lot of people and we don’t remember all their names and faces. But, you would have stood out to us. How did we miss you?” The condemned are saying, “We didn’t help that group of people, because, frankly, they aren’t very important, and they make us uncomfortable. But you are important, and we like you. If we would have seen you in the crowd we would have helped you. How did we miss you?”
The filter for sorting the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the condemned is the motive and not the actions, or like we talked last time, being conformed or transformed. The righteous are those people who are being transformed by God into new people. They are being changed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit and that transformation results in action. I am sincere in saying that God cares more about who you are than about what you do. That doesn’t mean you will stop doing. You will do things for a different reason. Not to impress God or others, but because you can’t help yourself. The more you are transformed, the more you will find yourself drawn to the marginalized, the weak, the poor, those who can’t pay you back. What’s even better, you will enjoy it. You will find joy in helping, serving, caring, and giving. What’s even better, you will find Jesus in the group. When you least expect it, he will be there saying “thank you.” He will smile at you through a child’s face, hug you through a homeless person, shake your hand from a hospital bed or prison cell.
The sheep “did” because they were compelled from the inside. Jesus didn’t reward their doing. He reminded them that what they did is evidence of their righteous and He rewarded their righteousness. Likewise, the condemned were not punished for failing to do. Jesus reminded them that their failure to act is evidence of a deeper issue, they are not transformed and that too is reflected in their actions. The key to the parable is that we can recognize the transformed by what they do and the transformed get into heaven.
Want to know more about this process of transformation? Start with this post.