In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus vividly teaches his disciples that the fundamental difference between the sheep and the goat is what they did and didn’t do for the most vulnerable people in society.
In the original context of Jesus’ instruction, he was emphasizing the need for his disciples to care for each other. However, in the more expansive context of the gospel of Matthew, it is clear that Jesus expected his disciples to care for both their brothers and their neighbors as a reflection of God’s concern for the world. As Paul would teach us in the book of Ephesians, Jesus’ concern encompassed the brothers and sisters who are near and the stranger who is far away and often forgotten.
To be sure, Jesus was not teaching his disciples that they were saved by their works. When Jesus announced the coming of his Kingdom, he called everyone to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). And, as Scripture teaches elsewhere, saving faith works itself out in love (Gal. 5:6). Thus, faith in Christ is accompanied by manifestation of love and care toward others, which is the point of Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.
With the Sanctity of Human Life in focus in the month of January, I believe it would be helpful for Christians to revisit Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 25 and consider how it should inform their love and care for “the least of these in our midst.”
The sheep and the goats
In Matthew 25:31-30, we see a person called the “Son of Man” coming with authority and glory to judge the earth. While at the time the disciples might not have realized that the Son of Man to whom Jesus referred was actually himself, it did not take them long after his resurrection to see that Jesus is the Lord over all. Specifically, in this case, Jesus is seen as the Lord over judgment. Whereas in Jesus’ first coming, he came as Savior; in his second coming, he comes as Judge.
In the first scene of judgment, we see Jesus addressing the “sheep.” As we know from other parts of Scripture, Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20). The sheep represent his people, those who have been called by his name, those who have repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. In this first scene, Jesus addresses the sheep, and he commends them for the way they have lived their lives toward others. They have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner. In summary, the sheep reflected the Shepherd’s care for the most vulnerable and forsaken people in society.
After detailing the works of the sheep, Jesus reveals that “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” For Jesus, there is an extricable relationship between having regard for him and having regard for others.
What we believe about the grace, mercy, and compassion of Jesus must translate into actions of grace, mercy, and compassion toward others.
From the judgment of the sheep, Jesus, in verses 41-46, turns his attention to the goats on his left. In these verses, we feel the mood of the scene change. What we find here are the goats doing the exact opposite of what the sheep have done. Instead of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for sick, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting the imprisoned, the goats stuck to “ministering” to people who they felt were worthy of their time and efforts. This is clear from the way that the goats respond to Jesus. They are appalled at the idea that they would have treated Jesus that way, but they have failed to recognize that the very definition of “serving Jesus” means “serving others.” Specifically, it means serving those that society tends to cast aside. Jesus concludes his judgment of the goats by saying, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.”
According to this passage, the fundamental difference between the sheep and the goats was not what they claimed to believe about Jesus, but rather how what they believed about Jesus affected the way they lived toward others.
This passage and our understanding of the sanctity of life
What we believe about the grace, mercy, and compassion of Jesus must translate into actions of grace, mercy, and compassion toward others. Christians who love the mercy of Christ ought to be merciful toward the “least of these” in our midst. This means caring for the weak, the oppressed, the stranger, the refugee, the homeless family, and drug addict in our community. This means that following Jesus is more than singing a song about how “Jesus loves the little children.” We must also demonstrate that same love in word and in deed.
Jesus loves the unwed mother who so often is wracked with guilt and shame. He loves the child who daily wrestles with trauma from abuse and neglect. And Jesus even loves that unseen, unborn child in the womb, even when society attempts to dehumanize bearers of his image. Such a reality should provoke Christians to work hard for the end of abortion through various efforts available to them. Whether through prayer or public policy, benevolence funds or baby showers, Christians must act to care for the least of these in our community.
So, when the unwed, pregnant mother visits your church, the response is never shame and disgust, but love and compassion. Sadly, love and compassion are not always the ways that professing Christians respond to unexpected pregnancies. According to some studies, approximately 73% of the women who have an abortion report some religious affiliation. One cannot help but wonder how these women might have responded if they would have known their churches genuinely loved them and wanted to care for them in their time of need.
When Jesus calls us to love the “least of these” in our midst, he is not calling us to something that isn’t messy. He isn’t calling us to a weekend project. He is calling us to a life of sacrificial love and care as the body of Christ. When we love the weak, forsaken, and vulnerable, we are loving like the Good Shepherd.