An Invitation to Friendship
Doc lived on the streets of Los Angeles (U.S.) near the church where I was serving as pastor. People called him “Doc” because he served as a medic in the Vietnam War, but like so many vets of that era, he came home with a drug habit and without a job and soon found himself homeless. I got to know Doc when he showed up in our food line. As our friendship grew, Doc came to me one day with a question. He’d always wanted a brother, he said, and wanted to know if I would be willing to be his big brother. So we became brothers. The story gets better from there. Doc started attending church, got a job as a phone solicitor, and got off the streets. A couple years later, he took another job in Cedar Falls, Iowa. We stayed in touch. He became active in his local church and in caring for people who were homeless in Cedar Falls. I was delighted the day he called to tell me he had been selected as the city’s citizen of the year! Shortly after that, I also received a call from his pastor telling me Doc had died in his sleep. I mourned the loss, but Doc’s friendship was a gift of grace to me for which I will always be thankful.
Through Doc’s life, I was reminded again that Jesus is present among the poor—something he emphasizes in Matthew 25:31-46. This may be the greatest passage in the New Testament about the call for the people of God to be merciful and compassionate. As I have reflected on the verses, a few surprises have caught my attention.
The parable of the sheep and the goats follows two other parables in Matthew 25: the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents. All three parables tell us something about our responsibility as we wait for Christ’s return. The message of the first parable is clear: We don’t know when Christ will appear, but we should remain in a state of preparedness for His return. The parable of the talents teaches that we should be good stewards of our God-given gifts as we do the work Jesus commanded us to do. Then comes the parable of the sheep and the goats in which those who cared for the poor are praised and those who did not are condemned.
In all three parables, those who were judged as unfit for the Kingdom (or worse, thrown “into outer darkness”) were judged not for what they did, but for what they did not do. They were judged for doing nothing! Apparently we will be held accountable not only for what we do in this life, but also for what we could have done but failed to do.
The parable of the sheep and the goats is about caring for those in need. If we take a deeper look, though, it also emphasizes that Jesus is present among those in need. This comes as a big surprise to both the sheep and the goats. The sheep respond, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison and care for you?” It’s as though the sheep are saying, “Lord, that was You we were caring for? We didn’t know that was You!” Yet they assume their actions were part of their calling as His followers. The goats say almost the same thing. With what we assume is a look of surprise on their faces, they say, “Lord, that was You? We didn’t realize that was You! If You had only told us, of course we would have helped!”
The true character of both the sheep and the goats is revealed. The sheep love naturally out of their recreated Christlike character of compassionate love. The goats do not.
Further, the language of the parable indicates personal presence. The sheep were personally present in caring for the poor. They didn’t organize a committee to send help (even though that’s a great idea), and they didn’t send checks to a relief organization (although we need people to do that, too). Instead, they personally cared for those in need.
John Wesley said caring for the poor (“acts of mercy”) is a means of grace. That is, when we are personally caring for those in need, God, through the Spirit, uses the experience to shape us in Christlike character. For Wesley—and apparently for Jesus in Matthew 25—that means being there in person.
What’s more, much of this parable is told in the language of hospitality. You gave me food. You gave me something to drink. You welcomed me. This calls us not only to care for people in need—people like Doc—but to welcome them into our lives, to include them in our community.
It is one thing to give out of our abundance to those in need. It is quite a different thing to welcome them into our lives as friends.
Ron Benefiel is dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Point Loma Nazarene University. Previously, he served as pastor of LA First Church of the Nazarene and president of Nazarene Theological Seminary.
This story was republished from the Winter 2014 NCM Magazine. You can read more at: ncm.org/magazine