Matthew 25 teaches us that Jesus is revealed to us in those who are deeply in need. In vs 35-36 Jesus uses very clear language: “I was hungry…I was thirsty…I was a stranger…I was naked…I was sick…I was in prison”. He could have said “it was as though I were hungry”, but he didn’t. His language is strong and undeniably clear. “When you helped that hungry person, that was me. When you ignored that hungry person, that was me, too.”
I love this story. Jesus reveals the innocence of the “sheep” who are surprised that they had even done the right things. “When did we see you hungry…?” He also tells us of the callous defensiveness of the “goats”. They ask the same question, but with a very different spirit. His answer to both is the same: “…to the extent that you did (or did not) it to one of these brothers of Mine you did (or did not) it to me.”
It bothers me that Jesus said “in as much as you did not do it to one of these”. He could have said “to some of these”, but he didn’t. His choice of wording has me thinking. I don’t think he means that I am off the hook because one time in my life I was nice to a poor person. Nor do I think that if I do not go out of my way to help every single poor person I meet, that means I am a “goat”. So what does it mean?
I do not believe that this story is grounds for a legalistic interpretation of salvation – that we are judged by how many people we sacrificially care for. We are in or out of God’s adopted family based solely on what Christ has done for us. No matter how many good deeds I try to do, they cannot erase my transgressions and my need for Christ’s sacrifice for my sin. I stand forgiven solely because of what Jesus did for me, not because of anything I may do for him.
As surely as Christ’s death is the grounds for my forgiveness, Christ’s life in me is the reason I do good to others. I want to do good because Jesus has changed me. I am not good because I do good. I do good because he is good, and has changed my heart to reflect his own. I do good because he lives in me and through me. That is what Galatians 2:20 is all about.
That said, there are certain things I cannot ignore in the Matthew 25 story.
I don’t want to be oblivious any more. I want to live in the acute knowledge that God loves me so much that he gives me the opportunity to know him and love him back through my encounters with people who need things I have to give.