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“The Least of These”

Matthew 25:31-46
Bob DeGray
July 11, 2010

Key Sentence

We serve Jesus when we minister to concentric circles of need.


I. His coming to judge (Matthew 25:31-33)
II. The righteous care for the least of these their brothers (Matthew 25:34-40)
III. The indifferent unrighteous are judged (Matthew 25:41-46)


This weekend is the Texas Water Safari, which starts at Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, and ends at Seadrift. The race was supposed to have started June 12th, and our family planned to camp at San Marcos for a few days and then follow the race. But due to excessive rain the race was postponed.

But the delay actually allowed us to do something else we’d wanted to do, which was to visit Aquarena Springs and ride the glass bottomed boats. Aquarena Springs is fascinating. Over 200 springs bubble up from the lake bottom, supplying an average of 100 million gallons a day of pure cold water from the Edwards aquifer. That’s equivalent to 60 days of the oil spill in the Gulf. This abundance supports an extravagance of life: plants and fish, including five endangered species, along with trees, plants, birds and animals. The well of pure water is a magnet attracting and giving life.

Compare that to Sulfur Cauldron at Yellowstone National Park: here what bubbles up is a hot odorous chemical mixture lethal to life. No plants, no fish survive in these pools, only a few special forms of bacteria. On the banks are no plants for many yards, no trees, no birds, no animals. It’s a deadly barren place. Life is attracted to the spring of water, repelled from the bitter brew.

I believe the same phenomenon has been true in the world since the time of Christ. Wherever Christ’s people have gone and have represented him well, they have been like a well of living water, attracting and giving life to all who would come. True life tends to cluster around true believers who are loving and caring for those around them. But in places where the good news about Jesus has not been received, cultures tend to be toxic, offering no life to the neediest and poorest among them, and no true spiritual life at all.

Today in our series on compassionate community we’re looking at the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. We’re going to see that we serve Jesus when we minister to others: first believers, then our communities, then all in need. We serve Jesus when we minister in concentric circles of need.

As we begin let me point you at a verse outside our text that sums up what we’re saying. In Galatians 6, after his heartfelt plea to the Galatians to cling to a gospel of grace, and of salvation by faith alone, Paul says: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

Do good to all people: that’s the widest circle. But especially to believers: that’s a narrower circle, those directly refreshed by the well of water. The reason I’m emphasizing these concentric circles of compassion is because I have a small problem with the passage I’m preaching. Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats, is often thought to be about universal compassion. But we’ll see as we study that it actually has a narrower focus: on believers. Only by application is it legitimately extended into larger circles of caring.

Jesus sets the stage for this teaching in Matthew 25:31-33 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All 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. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

This is the last thing Jesus teaches before the passion. He describes the coming of the Son of Man to judge the nations. Notice he comes in glory – he comes as only God can come. The angels come with him and he sits in glory on the throne of heaven to judge the nations. Isaiah 66:18 predicts this "And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory.”

These nations have opposing responses to the Gospel, to believers and to the needy among them, and they’re judged by their response. This is pictured as the separation of sheep and goats. The two were herded together in the day, but at night they were separated: sheep tolerate the cool air, but goats are herded together for warmth. Jesus uses this common image to picture the separation of the righteous, to his right hand, from the unrighteous on his left.

The big question is why do the sheep get selected? Jesus immediately explains. Matthew 25:34-40 "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. 35For 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, 36I 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? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

This is the heart of the text. The Son of Man is the King, yet he is still submissive to the will of the Father, for it is the Father who blesses the righteous and gives them the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world.

The king tells the righteous that the evidence for his judgment is how they treated him. He lists three pairs: hungry and thirsty, homeless and without clothing, ill or in prison. All of these are Old Testament callings: all are desirable acts of compassion. But they don’t perfectly apply to Jesus: in most of his earthly ministry they were not particularly apt descriptions of his troubles. Tempted, yes; persecuted, yes; reviled, yes; falsely accused, yes. But not often hungry or thirsty, or ill-clothed or imprisoned, at least until the end.

So the righteous, the sheep whom he has gathered on his right naturally ask, when did we see you this way and took care of you? And Jesus says “'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' The verse says, at the very least, that when we serve others we are serving Jesus. Don’t miss this: any big idea we take away from this parable has to include this thought: that when we serve others we are serving Jesus.

But the debate comes when we ask ‘who are the others’ – the least or littlest of these my brothers? Are they all people in need? Are they those near us in need? Are they Christians in need? Are they Christians who bring the message of Christ? Serious students of Scripture have give all these answers.

This is where the concentric circles of this passage and its applications show up. Within the context of Matthew this showing our care for Jesus by showing our care for others is clearly directed at believers. This is how Jesus uses the word ‘brothers.’ In Matthew 12 we read that “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." 48He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" 49Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." His brothers are those who follow him.

In Matthew 10, in words reminiscent of our passage, Jesus says “He who receives you receives me, and . . . if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” So in a sense it’s right to say the nations will be judged based on how they receive the Gospel, as shown by how they care for those who bring it. The righteous nations will receive the Gospel by faith and care for those who have sacrificed to bring it.

But I don’t believe that’s the whole inner circle. It needs to include all believers, because the sheep are being commended for how they care for the least of their brothers. And while Gospel messengers do have real needs, they are not the primary needy brothers. More often the hungry, the thirsty, homeless and naked, sick and imprisoned are the least honored members of the Body. It is to these the sheep on the right have shown compassion. It is of these that Jesus says “when you did it for one of them you did it for me.”

So the first circle is believers. Dozens of ‘one another’ commands make this a high priority for our lives. We care for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of even the weakest, most troubled believers. This is key to our witness: “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

But there is another circle of caring beyond this inner circle, corresponding to Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbor.’. He teaches that love for neighbor extends outside the community of believers and into the community around us. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes this clear: the Samaritan was commended and called a neighbor for going outside his cultural comfort zone to minister to the one in need, whereas the Levite and the priest refused to go outside their circle of religious restrictions to show the same care.

Remember, the picture we’re using is of a well. There is life inside the spring, but life is also drawn to the spring, the thirsty looking for refreshment. As we meet the needs of our neighbors, of the community, we give them a taste of the life we have found in Jesus. It’s entirely legitimate to apply our text by saying “as you have done it to the least of these your neighbors, you have done it to me.” We serve Jesus when we serve the needy in our community.

But there is a third circle: Jesus not only said ‘love one another’ and ‘love your neighbor’ but he said ‘love your enemies’ I believe this extends our love and its witness to the world at large. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.’

He says “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This means that we can apply Matthew 25 to the needs of the world to the very end of our reach. When we see the poor and hungry, the alien and the stranger, the widow and the orphan, whether it is in Friendswood or Houston or Mexico City, we need to try to meet their needs – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In that sense the very worst off, those with the most needs and the smallest voices are also Jesus and need our care.

The last verses negatively reinforce the same truths. Matthew 25:41-46 "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. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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, 'I tell you the truth, 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 first instance this is judgment on nations that do not accept the gospel, that do not become righteous through faith in Jesus. The state of their hearts is seen in their works. They’ve not shown compassion to Jesus, because they’ve not shown compassion to their community, their neighbors or others. It’s not the external behavior that would have saved them, but the heart condition evidenced by that behavior. They are saved by grace through faith in Jesus and lost to eternal punishment by the rejection of such faith.

Notice, by the way, that the phrase ‘my brothers’ is missing in this section. In verse 40 Jesus says ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ But here he only says ‘one of the least of these.’ The righteous are characterized by their love for one another. But the unrighteous are simply called to show compassion to the least of these around them. It would be too much to ask unbelievers to seek believers to show compassion, but it is not too much at all to ask that they show compassion for the people in their immediate community. Yet they’ve not even done that.

I think of the situation in Germany sixty years ago where Hitler led a whole nation to the murder of millions among them who they considered inferior – not only the Jews, but also the Gypsies, and almost anyone of Slavic origin. For example, two and a half to three million Russian prisoners of war died at German hands, while only just over 8000 American and British POWs died.

The negative example reinforces our positive calling as believers. Paul says it so well: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” Concentric circles: we are to minister to one another, we are to love our neighbors, we are to be compassionate to all in need. We’ve already seen God’s compassion in this series, that the law itself calls us to deal justly with all men. Deuteronomy 24:14 “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns.”

God’s heart is for the poor and the alien, for the widow and the orphan. I want to close with a great passage from Job, which I originally intended to preach separately, but there was too much overlap with the rest of this series. It reveals Job’s response to God’s heart for ‘the least of these.’ Job 31:13-23 If I have denied justice to my menservants and maidservants when they had a grievance against me, 14what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account? 15Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?

16"If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, 17if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless-- 18but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow-- 19if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, 20and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, 21if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, 22then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint. 23For I dreaded destruction from God, and for fear of his splendor I could not do such things.

God’s judgment on Job is forecast by his behavior to others. ‘If I’ve denied justice and compassion to others, how can I stand when God brings justice on me?” There is no heavenly reason not to show compassion to the least of these. And there is no earthly reason, for I am not inherently righteous at all apart from the grace of God. Job says “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?”

Job then goes on to itemize the kinds of compassion that God expects: Compassion grants the desires of the poor. It cares for widows, so that they do not carry the burden of their widowhood alone. It shares bread, sustenance, provision, with the fatherless, that is, with the orphan. It sees anyone without the necessities of life and sacrifices from its own resources to meet those needs. It sticks up for the downtrodden and the fatherless.

Doesn’t that sound like Matthew 25, showing compassion to the hungry and thirsty, the ragged and homeless, the sick and imprisoned. This is a legitimate and very Biblical application of Matthew 25: at the very limits of our reach, what we have done for the least of these, we have done for Jesus.

So we’ve seen that compassionate community takes place in concentric circles of caring: ‘one another’, the community itself, and ‘your neighbor’ – the neediness all around you, and ‘the ends of the earth’ – the needy at the very limit of our reach, which in this day and age is all the way around the world. When we care for Jesus in concentric circle of ‘the least of these’ we are being the well of living water, we give life and attract others to life.