Read Matthew 25:31–46. This is the famous passage about the judgment of the sheep and the goats. The text, understood in the context of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, highlights the importance of serving in the name of Jesus.
Stories abound from the Middle Ages about beggars who, after they were either helped or were refused help, revealed themselves to be Jesus in disguise. William Barclay, in his commentary, tells the story of Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier and a Christian. One day, in the freezing cold, Martin was approached by a beggar asking for money. Martin took off his heavy army cloak, cut it in half, and gave a piece to the beggar. That night Martin had a dream. He was in heaven, and there he saw Jesus wearing half a cloak. An angel asked, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak?” Jesus replied, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”
Stories like Martin’s serve as encouragement to help the poor. In serving “the least of these,” we serve Christ. Jesus is at present with the Father, so he isn’t physically roaming the earth testing the generosity of his followers. But the lesson, in spirit, is a good one. As the old song says, “What we do for Christ will last.”
Matthew’s gospel records another powerful motivation—judgment. We want to be careful here to say the final disposition of our souls is based on faith in Christ, who died for our sins. Our salvation is not based on our own works. But Jesus’ teaching here, from the Mount of Olives, makes it clear that our actions on earth, including our care for the poor, have implications in eternity.
As Myron Augsburger notes in his commentary on Matthew, we can learn at least three things about the coming judgment:
The judgment is all-inclusive. All nations and ethnicities will be “herded” before God, and the individuals will be separated before him.
The judgment is interpretive. In this picture of the judgment before God, we learn what God expects for his people and of his people. God expects his people will inherit the kingdom prepared for them “since the creation of the world” (v. 34). And he expects that, until his people come into their inheritance, they will serve other humans as if they were serving Jesus (v. 40).
The judgment is an indictment of the church for its lack of social involvement as kingdom members. Love for God is evidenced by love for neighbor. If there is no neighbor-love shown, how can we claim God-love? Our religion (the practice of our faith) is corrupted. As James puts it, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Matthew 25 identifies Christ with the needy, charges the church with responsibility for the needy, and gives our actions—or the lack of them—eternal consequence. It should be noted that the sins of omission—what we did not do—are just as serious as the sins of commission—what we did do that we shouldn’t have done (v. 45).
[Q] Should all compassion ministries lead to evangelism? If so, should that objective be stated overtly by the planners of those ministries? Should recipients of such evangelism-driven compassion ministries be told about the gospel-sharing intent at the outset?
[Q] Perhaps you have heard that attending a preaching service is the price a street person pays for a meal at a soup kitchen. Is there a better way to link the gospel to compassion ministry?
Apply Your Findings
Christ’s teaching on the sheep and goats tells us of the importance of the church’s social concern. Indeed, most evangelicals agree on the point of our obligation to pursue social justice. But the question unanswered is: How does the church fulfill its obligation? Is our social action among individuals, or is it to be on a larger scale? And to what extent is the church’s mission to bring righteousness to society, to the nation itself, politically?
[Q] Where do the silent majority, Moral Majority, and Religious Right fit into this discussion?
[Q] Consider again the three arenas in which the church may affect change: (1) personal moral behavior, (2) social concern, and (3) political and legal action. For each, name two specific needs in your community.
[Q] What are some specific ways your church could better bring about change to meet these needs?
[Q] Are there existing ministries or social action groups your church could support? Are there new ministries your church could start?
[Q] What changes would be required of the congregation—in terms of resources or attitudes—to start such ministries?
[Q] What changes would be required of you personally to support such ministries?
[Q] Is there one need on this list about which you feel strongly? Will you begin praying about your personal involvement?
— Study by Eric Reed, managing editor of Leadership journal
and author of numerous studies in this series.
Acting on Your Faith: Congregations Making a Difference: A Guide to Success in Service and Social Action, by Victor N. Claman, David E. Butler, and Jessica A. Boyatt (Insights, 1994; ISBN 0963970100)
Building the Externally Focused Church (BEFC) Conference Power Point Presentation: Strategies & Best Practices for the Missional Church; find link at www.leadnet.org/resources/Resources.asp
BEFC Conference Power Point Presentation: Community Transformation and the Equipping Church Movement; find link at www.leadnet.org/resources/Resources.asp
The Chicago Declaration: 1973 Thanksgiving Workshop on Evangelicals and Social Concern (Creation House, 1974; ASIN 088419048X)
Christian Community Development Association web site, www.ccda.org
A Public Faith: A Balanced Approach to Social and Political Action, by Charles D. Drew (NavPress, 2000; ISBN 1576832155)
Religion, Mobilization, and Social Action, by Anson and Bronislaw Misztal (Praeger Publishers, 1998; ISBN 0275956253)
They Walked in the Spirit: Personal Faith and Social Action in America, by Douglas M. Strong (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997; ISBN 0664257062)
How a document conceived 30 years ago has prompted us to care more about 'the least of these.'
By Joel A. Carpenter, for the study, “From Personal Faith to Social Action.”
In 1973, a group of 50 evangelical leaders spent the weekend after Thanksgiving at the YMCA hotel on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Just when Paul Henry, a political science professor from Calvin College, was urging the group to break evangelicals’ silence on the social evils of the day, a shot rang out in the hotel corridors. The hotel was no luxury palace, and this was not your typical evangelical weekend conference.
The conferees gathered to commit to social justice. The conference’s concern would not be so unusual today. Now evangelicals left, center, and right agree that social justice is one of the central callings of all Christians. Thirty years ago, only a frustrated minority—like those at the Chicago meeting—thought so. Today evangelicals may disagree about what policies will get us there, but they agree about the need to pursue “the righteousness that exalts a nation.” Three decades ago, a lot of evangelicals would have called this political meddling, if not selling out the gospel.
The radical shift in modern evangelicalism began when these assembled delegates met amid the violence of inner city Chicago. They represented a wide array of traditions and viewpoints, and they found that they had to confront each other if they were to assure that the declaration they were crafting would be truly comprehensive and speak prophetically. Their manifesto had to address economic justice, peacemaking, racial reconciliation, and gender concerns within a biblical framework, and in ways that honored an evangelical passion for others’ salvation in Jesus Christ.
The prevailing consensus of evangelicals regarding social justice suggests the delegates succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. The Chicago Declaration remains fresh and relevant today, and its principal organizational child, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), is still implementing it (with help from other like-minded evangelical organizations).
The historic moment was not lost on two journalists who covered the Chicago meeting and saw some “man bites dog” value to the story. Evangelical Protestants at the time tended to be seen as Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority, the solid backers of the social status quo. But in Chicago they were speaking out against injustice. Marjorie Hyer of The Washington Post wrote at the time that the November weekend’s discussions “could well change the face of both religion and politics in America.” And Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Roy Larson wrote, “Someday American church historians may write that the most significant church-related event of 1973 took place last week at the YMCA hotel on S. Wabash.”
In fact, a number of very important things did happen.