So another parable of Jesus. This time about judgement. Not a comfortable topic. Not a comfortable parable.
Jesus sets the scene. The Son of Man (the Messiah) has returned as King. Surrounded by angels he sits on the throne so this is about power and authority and judgement. There is no servant role here. No suffering messiah. This is the risen and returned Christ in all his glory and power. So the subtext is: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
All people are gathered before him and then they are separated into 2 groups. Please note, only two. There are no denominational divisions here. No subsets of theology or philosophy or life view. Just two simple groups like a shepherd would separate sheep from goats.
Now a shepherd would have several reasons for separating sheep and goats. The goats needed to be gathered at night to keep them warm while keeping the sheep in open air as they preferred. But also sheep cost more than goats and were of greater use than goats so the shepherd would be most concerned that the sheep are well looked after, safe and secure. So we have an inkling of what is coming. The people are separated like sheep and goats. The useful from the useless.
Note also in verse 33 how the ‘righteous people’ are put on his right. Those in a right relationship with God are placed on the side of power and authority and honour. The ‘other people’, no adjective used to described them, are on the left...not a good side to be on. Left is about sinister doings and bad things. There is danger on the left.
Then comes the invitation. ‘Come...come and possess...’ What welcoming words. Total access to the wealth and power of the kingdom is granted to these people. Nothing is held back. Note also that this is not a spur of the moment decision or preparation. The King says that this “has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.” I like the idea that God is so eager and keen to fellowship with us that he has already prepared space, place and room for us in his kingdom since the very beginning. What is interesting here is the reasoning behind the welcome. It has nothing to do with faith or belief, and everything to do with action.
Hungry...thirsty...stranger...naked...sick...imprisoned. Six simple basic everyday needs. So simple and so basic that the righteous people are dumbfounded. How is it possible that we did this for you? Picture, if you can, this crowd of people scratching their heads trying to figure out how they ever did these things for this glorious and powerful King, I mean you would expect a King with a retinue of angels to stand out a little from the crowd. So the King explains:
“Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!”
Wow! So that’s how it happens. It isn’t the really religious and great things that they did, but the little things. The little kindnesses. Their involvement with the least important people. Beggars. Outcasts. Poor. Oppressed. It is a reminder that there is something about the divine and the sacred being hidden in the everyday here. A reminder that everything we do is somehow effecting God’s divine realm and God as well. Keeping this thought in mind, are there things in your life you should or could or would do differently knowing that what you are now doing has these divine and eternal repercussions?
But to continue...
The King then turns to the ‘other people’...the goats. They are cursed and punished. They, too, plead ignorance. “How could we possibly have known?” But there is no wiggle room granted. The refusal to help the least was a refusal to serve God himself. Ouch! Do the words of the King make you a little uncomfortable? They should. How often do you overlook someone or pass them by because it’s just too hard to listen to them. I mean you have heard all their stories before. How easy is it to refuse help to someone who comes asking for some coins or be so caught up in all those ‘important’ things you need to do that you can’t spend a few a moments helping someone with a kind word or a gesture of help.
This was one of the criticisms that Jesus levelled at the religious people and leaders of his day. They all knew the right words, the religious words, but they did not know or show the love of God. This is also why Jesus continued to remind his disciples that to be a true and faithful disciple was all about ‘hearing’ the words of Jesus and ‘doing’ them. It what is behind his teaching that the ‘first’ must be the ‘last’ and the ‘greatest’ must be the ‘least’ or ‘servant’ of all. That is taking the teaching about compassion and grace and forgiveness and love, and putting it into real concrete everyday action in our relationships with the people we meet. Family or friends or strangers.
There are a few things to keep in mind here when we go that next step and apply the parable to us and our lives.
1. Every person has the ability to do this. The kindnesses mentioned here are within the reach of every person. They don’t require painful sacrifice on our part, but they do give some pain relief for those who receive our compassion and care. How much is required to make that phone call or a quick visit? How much effort does it take to share your food or water or possessions with those in need?
2. Jesus does not say anything about effectiveness. He only asked, "Did you feed the hungry?" "Did you clothe the naked?" "When I was in prison did you come to me?" There are no questions about how many you fed or visited or helped. There are no comments about whether your cooking was up to 5-star standard or your counselling qualifications were high enough. It is simply about being you and doing your best as you seek to help those around you and share compassion, love and grace with them. It is good to know that, whether or not you can change the world, you can still be faithful.
3. Jesus is not expecting heroic acts. He does not demand miracles. Just everyday actions. Everyday kindness.
What is also important to keep in mind is that we are able to show this love because God first loved us. Our small acts of kindness are a natural out-flowing of the loving faith and the living faith that we now have through the work of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
I have always liked the words of Mother Theresa on this topic. She said:
We can do no great things; only small things with great love.
But how much more are all those small things...those little kindnesses...the insignificant actions...when done in the eternal divine love of God dwelling within us. For in them is the kingdom of God revealed in us and through us and to us ...in all its fullness.