Not only do we read scripture, but scripture reads us. This week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25:31-46 reads us deeply. The parable of the sheep and the goats is a frightening and unnerving parable. The apocalyptic drama of this text is very clear regarding the kind of fruit Christ-followers are to bear in our lives. It does not leave us or our hearers any wiggle room. This parable functions as a warning to Matthew’s community and our own: we will be judged on the basis of our compassion or lack of compassion for the most vulnerable.
The actors in all three parables in Matthew 25 are judged because of what they failed to do. The five foolish virgins at the beginning of the chapter are shut out of the kingdom because of what they didn’t do: they didn’t get oil for their lamps. The servant with one talent is judged wicked and lazy because he buried his talent in the ground. In the last parable of Matthew 25, the goats are judged for what they didn’t do. They are judged, not for sins of commission, but for their sins of omission. They don’t get shut out of the kingdom because of some great impurity or crime they’ve committed. They are shut out of the kingdom because they failed to care for the most vulnerable among us.
After reading this parable, people will sometimes ask: “Is Jesus teaching salvation by works here?” Arland Hultgren offers wise insight:
This parable does not provide teaching about salvation (soteriology) per se. Its focus is rather upon human responsibility in face of the destitution of fellow human beings. How is a person’s life to be judged? It can only be judged outwardly by what that person does. What is inside is known only to God. Moreover, the grace of God is greater than anyone can possibly conceive. But for the time being, before the judgment, one stands responsible and accountable.
The criterion for judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is “not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people.” Such acts of love toward our neighbors are not “extra credit,” but are expected to be the fruit that any authentic Christ-follower demonstrates in their life.
Throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ message is consistent: if God’s life is truly flowing in and through us, then we will bear the fruit of the Kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 7:21, for example, Jesus said of his followers: “by their fruit you will know them.” Even in the great grace chapter in Ephesians, the Apostle Paul proclaims that we have been created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). Faith and works, faith and fruit are two sides of the same coin throughout scripture.
Jesus knows nothing of an other-worldly gospel that doesn’t address the concrete needs of the most vulnerable. The most vulnerable in scripture are referred to time and time again as the widow, the orphan, the refugee, or the poor (see Zechariah 7:9-10, as one example among many). The message of Jesus’ parable is undeniable: those who are genuine Christ-followers will be actively involved in alleviating the problems of the most vulnerable: hunger, thirst, homelessness, lack of adequate clothing and shelter, illness, and imprisonment.
Those in the parable who minister to the most vulnerable are surprised to learn that in serving the lost, lonely, and least that they were actually serving Jesus: “That was you, Jesus? That couldn’t have been you!” The sheep don’t think that their actions were that big of a deal: “You mean there were other people who didn’t help the helpless? Didn’t we just do what we were supposed to do? We were just doing what is right and loving and kind. We weren’t doing anything special.” The fruit of righteousness organically flowed from the loving hearts of the sheep.
In this parable as in other places in the gospels, spiritual and physical needs are inseparable for Jesus. They are two sides of the same coin. This is at the heart of what it means to live a life of Christlike holiness—to be the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of Jesus in the world. That we bear the image of Christ in the midst of an empire that constantly seeks to squeeze us into its mold (see Romans 12:2) is our calling as Christ-followers. The church is to be a prophetic witness of the Kingdom of God in our love for the most vulnerable.
Within my own theological tradition, John Wesley practiced a holistic, Matthew 25 kind of ministry (if you come from another theological tradition, I encourage you to provide examples from your own theological tradition). Wesley himself collected food for the hungry, visited prisoners, established schools for children, provided clean water, clothes for cold bodies, medicine for the sick, hospitality to the imprisoned, assisted the weak and sick by building medical clinics, and gave microloans to start small businesses. One of my favorite stories from Wesley’s long life comes from when Wesley was eighty-two-years-old. He spent a week slogging through the melting snow and muddy streets of London “begging” for the poor, as he called it. As a result of about thirty hours spent soliciting funds that week, he raised 200 pounds or the equivalent of around $30,000 in today’s currency.
Mother Teresa’s life and ministry were also deeply impacted by this parable. She said that her own ministry was done for, with, and to Jesus: “We serve [Jesus] in the neighbor, see him in the poor, nurse him in the sick; we comfort him in the afflicted brothers and sisters.” At her funeral she was eulogized for having exemplified Matthew 25:31-46 throughout her life. While not many of us will be Mother Teresas, each of us are called to engage in similar ministry as Christ-followers.
After reading this passage, it’s all too easy to think: “Since I can’t do everything I won’t do anything.” We may not be able to do everything, but each of us can do something. None of us can change the world by ourselves; but, together with God, we can change the world one girl, one boy, one family, at a time. Each of us can do something to minister to “the least of these,” locally and globally. Imagine the thoughts in Mother Teresa’s mind when she stopped to care for her first abandoned person on the streets of Calcutta. She wasn’t thinking about changing the entire world—just loving one person—Jesus disguised in the life of one dying person. When I feel like my actions are insignificant I recall the words of one of my favorite African proverbs: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a closed room with a mosquito.”
How we actively serve the vulnerable will look different for each of us. We will need to discern in a Sunday school class, a small group, and as a Church what caring for “the least of these” will look like in our particular context. Here are a few starter ideas for living out Matthew 25:31-46:
With the beginning of Advent next week, preachers may want to encourage their congregation to consider ways to shape their Christmas practices around the most vulnerable. In the U.S., where over $600 billion is spent yearly on Christmas gifts that many of us don’t need, preachers could include suggestions for “gifts with a purpose” in their Matthew 25 messages:
Raise money to dig a well in a developing country. Advocate for clean water in your local community.
Sponsor a vulnerable family in your community.
Sponsor a child in a developing country. You can do this individually, as a Sunday School class, children’s ministry, youth group, or church.
Some more long-term Matthew 25 kinds of projects may include:
Search out ways to welcome and establish refugees in your community.
Start a community garden as a way to feed the hungry and/or undernourished.
Find ways to give hope to unaccompanied (homeless) youth.
Organize your church for prison ministry
Become involved in a “big brother/big sister” program in your community
Advocate for the vulnerable. Use Facebook, Twitter, a blog, and other social media to share stories and pictures about those who are engaging in Christlike compassion in the world.
Pray. As an another African proverb says about the relationship between prayer and practice, “When you pray, move your feet.”
 Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 327.
 M. Eugene Boring, Matthew: The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 455.
 Richard Heitzenrater, “The Poor and the People Called Methodists,” in Chapter 1, The Poor and the People Called Methodists, ed. Richard Heitzenrater (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2002), 31, 223.
 Hultgren, Parables of Jesus, 326.