Goat or Sheep? (by Jeff Fulmer)
From the sound of things in Matthew 25, Jesus is going to make a big entrance when he returns to earth. With an entourage of angels, he is going to take his place on a throne and all the nations will be gathered before Him. Then, he’s going to get down to business and start separating people like a shepherd – goats to the left, sheep to the right.
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.’
Like the good sheep they are, the righteous honestly admit they never saw Jesus in any of these dire circumstances.
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.’ Then Jesus lowers the boom and commands the cursed to depart from him.
The goats on the left are sincerely baffled and balk at their sentence. 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?’
The fact that they call Jesus “Lord” implies they know him or, at least, think they do. Some of the goats may be church-goers who teach Sunday school and sing in the choir. They may be prominent “Christians” who are asked to pray at luncheons and sought after by community leaders.
Jesus repeats his message, this time in the negative. 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.’”
This parable doesn’t seem to be a head-scratcher, although it is a little unusual. Unlike most parables, Jesus interjects himself directly into the story. And rather than an allegory with a hidden meaning, this one sounds a lot like an actual future event coupled with a strong, specific warning.
Since I don’t spend as much time as I should with the groups Jesus identifies as important to him, I admit that Matthew 25 is a little disconcerting to me. At the same time, I don’t think Jesus wants us to systematically go down a checklist of hospitals and prisons to visit in an effort to secure eternal salvation. Jesus is conveying a frame of mind and a condition of the heart that his true followers will have by nature of their state of grace.
Having a heart for “the least of these” can be manifested in different ways. It might be sharing the scriptures with someone who is spiritually starving or introducing a thirsty soul to Christ. It may be simply taking the time to reach out to society’s outcast or working to free the person who is imprisoned by his own vices and addictions.
Of course, caring for “least of these” has to be taken literally too. This would involve physically meeting people where they are – on the streets, in the homeless shelters, hospitals, and prisons. Several years ago, I participated in a prison ministry and I’ve never encountered a group of men in more desperate need of the forgiveness and hope found in the Word of God.
Finally, we can also participate in helping the “least of these” on a societal level. Having a heart for “the least of these” will include how we choose to allocate our resources as a country. I want a strong, efficient government, but I also want one that is caring and compassionate. After all, how a nation treats its most vulnerable members is a measure of its true greatness.
Can we visit family member in the hospital and not care if another sick person can even afford to see a doctor? Can we give a homeless person a dollar and not support public assistance to keep a shelter open? Can we preach to prisoners and not support programs that keep young, impoverished men off the streets and out of trouble? These are just a sampling of the difficult challenges we face as a community. Personally, I don’t want to vote like a goat.
Jesus will gather the nations before him, but he will judge each of us individually on how we treated Him and his brothers and sisters. Likewise, each person must interpret this parable for themselves and decide how they should act on it. There are many different possible ways to respond but, as Christians, it’s a question we all need to answer – because there will be a test at the end.
Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book, “Hometown Prophet.”