Weekly Bible Devotional
“Dare to Care: Action on a Small Scale”
Scripture for Sunday: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Notes on The Text:
This is a parable which Jesus gave to help people understand his way of compassion and what it meant for them to follow it. This parable is often misunderstood to be about the final judgement of individuals. Jesus used parables to shock his listeners and to give them a new perspective on life and faith according to the vision of the kingdom of God. Parables were not short stories that illustrated a point. They were shocking short teachings that jarred people and woke them up to a new reality and perspective that were only possible through God. This is of course hard for us today because we tend to read the parables and think that we know what Jesus was talking about. The typical way we interpret this parable is that it is telling us about the final judgment day when God would be judging us according to our acts of compassion. We imagine that some of us, the sheep, would be sent to a good place we call heaven because we cared for the poor and those in need, while the rest of us, the goats, would go to hell because we did not care about the needy in our midst. This leaves us with an image of a scary God who is ready to punish us for eternity for our infractions. It also leaves us with a teaching that says that our actions earn us God’s grace. This is in direct opposition to the teachings of the Bible about God’s grace and unconditional love as we know them in Jesus.
One of the issues that trip us up is that we read this parable as an individual statement about each of us, while the sheep and the goats were referring to nations. In verse 32 most translations say, “and he will separate people one from another.” But in the original text in the Greek, it is saying that “he will separate the nations” and not individuals. There is a huge difference here because Jesus is talking about nations and not individuals. His vision for the kingdom of God is not only about personal acts of piety and morality. It is also about a social transformation. The people in the time of Jesus did not think of the kingdom of God as a distant reality and of eternal life as something to happen only after we die. Jesus was talking about the need for the nations to be transformed in the here and now. When John the baptizer was proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, he was talking about something that was going to happen in the people’s lifetime. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:2 Of course in the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is often described as the kingdom of heaven because the Jews avoided using the name of God because it was too holy.
Another important clue for us in understanding this parable is how Jesus used the image of the “Son of Man” to refer to himself. This was the title he preferred using for himself. This was a direct reference from Daniel 7 about this agent of God, “the Son of Man,” who would work to judge and reform the Israelite society politically, economically, and religiously. The Son of Man is the one who comes on the side of the suffering and persecuted to reform the structures of power that oppress people.
All of this is to say that Jesus was talking about the judgment of the nations in terms of their faithfulness to God’s ways of compassion. We have two groups in this parable: the sheep and the goats. The one group (goats) lives by the values of the world. They don’t share the love of God with others and thus don’t have compassion for their neighbors. They keep it to themselves and to those they love. Those outside of their familial or social circles are invisible to them. The other group (the sheep) is the one living by the values of the kingdom of God. They are continuing to let God’s love flow through them not just to their family and friends, but also to all the people in need. They live by the principles of Christ’s compassion. The shocking part of the parable is that both groups: the sheep and the goats did not realize that what they were doing was directly done to Jesus himself. The ones who cared for the needy did not know that it was Jesus in disguise that they were caring for. In the same way, the ones who did not care for the needy did not know that it was Jesus in disguise that they neglected. This is the shock of the parable. Jesus was undercover and they did not know it. Loving Jesus involved creating communities of care and compassion for those who were vulnerable in society. It required recognizing that God was to be found in the suffering of our neighbors. Jesus was using that theme to help his followers understand that it is not enough for nations or people to just say godly things. It was important for nations and individuals to practice God’s laws of love and compassion. That was the true measure of a nation’s or a person’s success in life. Think of how radical that is today when we tend to measure a nation’s success by its national GDP.
This parable helps us to see that compassion for our neighbors is the way to know God. The presence of God is as close to us as the person we feed, clothe, protect, or visit. What will bring us fulfillment in life is living by the values of the kingdom of God receiving God’s love and sharing it, especially with those who are on the margins of society and who cannot repay us for helping them. Our lives will bear fruit when we practice compassion in our everyday life by serving and connecting with our neighbors who are suffering.
Yesterday, the Los Samaritanos network received a call from a man by the name of Jesus who was released from the detention center and who needed help getting to his family in Albany. He had a bus ticket from Buffalo to Albany but had no food, no money, and no way to get to Buffalo. He was left to fend for himself at the Citgo Station. One of the people who works at that station reached out to us. Two people were able to be there. One bought him a bus ticket to Buffalo and other gave him a dignity bag and some cash. The gas station attendant bought him food. I had met this woman before and know that she herself does not have much. But her heart is full of compassion for those who are left in such dire need. What struck me in the whole incident is the man’s name. It was a strong reminder about how helping our brothers and sisters in need is ultimately about seeing Jesus in them.
We are all invited to bear the fruit of compassion in our lives. The key is opening our eyes and hearts to the people of our lives who need that compassion and care, especially those who cannot repay us for such compassion. Canadian Catholic writer and theologian Jean Vanier writes the following as a challenge and invitation to all of us: “There are many hungry people in our world. God is not going to send down some bread from the trees, because if somebody is hungry, it’s our problem. If somebody is sick, it’s my problem; it’s your problem. If somebody is closed up in an institution because he (or she) has a disability, it’s my problem. We have to do something about it. If people have a toothache, you don’t just pray for him or her, you take them to a good dentist. And Jesus says to us, ‘It’s up to you to do something about it, but I give you my spirit. I’ll give you a new force, a new strength, and a new wisdom so that you can break down the dividing walls of hostility.’ It’s up to you and me, but God will give us strength if we open our hearts…and ask for that strength.”
Prayer of the Way of Compassion by Edward Hays:
O Spirit of Solace and compassion,
as I hurry along my busy way,
slow me down so I can look twice
at those with sad, suffering faces.
Cleanse my habit-encrusted eyes
so I can see Christ in each of them.
Enflame my dulled and cold heart,
and stir up in me a fierce desire
to stop and aid my suffering savior.
Plant my feet firmly in a ground of compassion,
lest at any site of Christ’s sufferings
I blindly stagger by on my busy way.
Infuse your compassion in my heart
so I may never pass by
those who are cross-crushed
without expressing caring and concern,
without an outstretched hand,
without even a prayer or blessing
for my afflicted Lord in need. Amen.