Matthew puts Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats as the last parable in his Gospel because he sees it as the climax of all of Jesus’ teachings and the most important teaching of all. As Ryan Ahlgrim notes, it’s also Jesus’ most shocking parable, one that contains three surprises that could upend our lives. According to this parable,
- Jesus will ultimately welcome us into his eternal kingdom or send us to hell based on whether we helped those in the most desperate need. This includes the hungry, the sick, prisoners, the naked, the stranger… society’s disenfranchised.
We Christians routinely tell people who want to know what they need to do to gain eternal life that they must do such things as believe in Jesus, confess their sins, repent, ask for forgiveness or submit to Jesus’ lordship. Yet Jesus says his sole criterion for deciding our eternal destiny is whether we’ve actively cared for society’s weakest and most vulnerable members.
Some might wonder if we’re interpreting Jesus correctly here. But the fact is, this isn’t the only place where Jesus teaches this. In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus says that to inherit eternal life you must love God supremely and love your neighbor as yourself. He explains what loving one’s neighbor involves by telling the story of a Samaritan who courageously and sacrificially cared for a dying stranger from a hostile religious group. According to Jesus, we gain eternal life by acts of mercy and love toward those in desperate need. How can that be when St. Paul says doing good deeds can never save us?
- The people we find it easiest to ignore and most inconvenient to love are Jesus’ stand-ins. They are for all intents and purposes, Jesus to us. So, when we love and serve them, we are loving and serving Jesus. When we reject them or ignore them, we reject or ignore Jesus.
John 3:16 tells us we gain eternal life by believing in Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus is telling us that faith and love are inseparable. For if we really believe he’s God’s Messiah, appointed to rule the world, we’ll submit to his lordship. Submitting to his lordship means obeying him and serving him, and that means loving and serving the most desperately needy around us.
Believing in Jesus is far more than just subscribing to a statement of faith. Jesus himself says he’s not always comfortable with our professions of faith. They’re too easy to make. He says throwing his name around isn’t enough. We must believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed everything. Simply put:
faith in Jesus = loyalty to Jesus = love for Jesus
If we believe Jesus is God’s Messiah-king, we’ll begin living now by the values of his kingdom. The parable of the sheep and the goats outlines for us what those values are. When you think of it, why would Jesus grant citizenship in his eternal kingdom to anyone who has clearly shown that they don’t accept the values of his kingdom? For such a person to think they belong in Jesus’ kingdom evidences a real misunderstanding of what his kingdom is.
- Both the sheep and the goats are amazed to hear that in serving or ignoring the most desperate they served or rejected Jesus. That’s because the sheep and the goats both do what they do because that’s who they are. And Jesus is the only person who can truly judge who we are.
We think we know ourselves and our motives, but we don’t know nearly as much as we think. Only God knows us truly. He alone can judge us. So, we need to let go of all our spiritual pride and walk humbly before him. Jesus’ words will surprise us all on that day.
“When we help those in desperate need, we’re not saving them. They’re saving us… from our indifference… our self-sufficiency… our isolation… our greed.” They’re saving us from ourselves. Without even knowing it, they’re helping us to fit our souls for the world that will never end.
Ryan Ahlgrim tells of a couple in his church whose next-door neighbor came to their door late one night, asking to sleep on their couch. His brother had threatened to kill him, and he was afraid to sleep at home. The couple let him sleep on their couch not just that night, but for weeks. When the man went for surgery, he returned from the hospital into their home, where they nursed him back to health. And they did that not just after his first surgery, but after four successive surgeries. In time, they invited him to the church and, having seen firsthand what it means to be a Christian, loving as Jesus loved, he became a believer and joined their church.
faith in the Jesus of the Gospels = loving Jesus in the poor
True faith in Jesus and love for Jesus in the poor are inseparable. The parable of the sheep and the goats tells us in picture form that professing faith, calling yourself a Christian, isn’t enough. Nor is praying, Bible reading, going to church or putting money in the offering. Jesus says what most reveals who we really are is what we say and do when we come across someone we find very inconvenient. Do we help them or turn them away?
Of course, believing in Jesus is vital, as are repentance, prayer, belonging to a church and so much else. And St. Paul is absolutely right. We can never earn our admission to Jesus’ kingdom by doing good deeds. Rather, we become people who belong in Jesus’ eternal kingdom by loving those he loves—the poor, the weak, the broken, the lost—and caring for them as if they were him.
With so many desperately needy in our world, we may well blanch and ask, How can we possibly care for the needy and still excel in our career, take good care of our family, of ourselves? The answer is that we need always to listen to what Jesus is saying when the poor come calling. He doesn’t call us all to do as St. Francis did, leaving everything behind to welcome the poor and the maimed. But amidst our busyness, we can all pause to take our orders from Jesus. Indeed, we must. We become what he wants us to be when we see a desperate need, listen to him and do whatever he says. To call him “Lord” while ignoring his commands is futile.
Jesus will surely come to us in disguise. And when he does, we must not turn him away.
Rather, we must do as he says. The only kind of faith that can save us is the kind that reveals itself in love for whatever “Jesus” he sends us. Our response to him will determine our eternal destiny.
 Matt. 25:31-46.
 I owe the substance of this article’s three points and, indeed, much more in it to Ryan Ahlgrim’s sermon “Jesus’ Most Important Parable.” https://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/a52-the-twenty-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-2020/ Accessed November 18, 2020.
 Eph. 2:8-9.
 Matt. 7:21-23. As Peter Krol says, “If this warning from Jesus doesn’t cause you to tremble, you are most likely in danger from it.” Immediately before giving it, Jesus says it’s by our fruit—what we do—that we’re truly known. https://www.knowableword.com/2019/04/26/context-matters-i-never-knew-you-depart-from-me/ Accessed November 18, 2020.
 Ryan Ahlgrim. https://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/a52-the-twenty-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-2020/ Accessed November 18, 2020.
 https://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/a52-the-twenty-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-2020/ Accessed November 18, 2020.
 Luke 6:46-49.