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The famous “sheep and goats” passage in Matthew 25 is a powerful message from Jesus as he nears his death.

As Jesus tells it, those on the king’s right-hand side are the sheep, and the king says that when he was hungry they gave him food, when he was thirsty they gave him drink, when he was a stranger they welcomed him, when he was naked they gave him clothing, when he was sick they took care of him, when he was in prison they visited him. The reverse is true for the goats on his left-hand side. When they saw him in these times of need, they did nothing. We readers of Matthew 25 are powerfully encouraged to care for those in need.

And, if we take the text to only be saying: “You should take care of the needy,” well, then, that is still true and still very important, but also, we knew that already. We already knew, before Jesus told us, that good people take care of those in need. It’s not that we all act this way all the time, but we are on the same page about taking care of the needy being a good thing to do. 

Besides not being uniquely Christian, there’s another danger in hearing Matthew 25 as just another list of instructions for us: if we think that this is all about what we do for the least of these, then we begin to understand ourselves as the hero of the story.

There is a fine line between taking joy in serving others and taking joy in the fact that others need me and I do not need them. It can be nice to feel needed, can’t it? But the more I see myself as the giver and others as the takers, the more I am placing myself neither on the right hand nor on the left hand – I am placing myself in the seat of the king. The king gets to decide who is needy, and when I think that I am the king, I do not have to admit my own need.

Another text from the ancient world, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, has a similar description of caring for the needy. In that book the virtuous man, at the end of his life, speaks with clear knowledge of his good deeds. He says, “I have given satisfaction to God by doing that in which he delights: I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothed the naked.”

This is different from the sheep in Matthew 25. The sheep in Matthew 25 have no idea what they have done. They ask in astonishment, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”

The sheep who are invited into eternal life with the king are not powerful. They are not knowledgeable or in charge or even very smart. The ones who are invited into eternal life with the king simply follow the ways of that king, which turn out to be ways of humility and obedience.

Matthew 25 is less of a statement of instruction — you ought to go care for the poor — and more of a statement of reality: King Jesus, the King of the universe who will one day come again to judge the living and the dead – King Jesus is a very specific type of king. He doesn’t just tell you to care for the poor. He is the poor.

When Bill Robinson was the president of Whitworth College, he told a story from the days when he was an idealistic young Christian. He had an opportunity to teach at a state penitentiary in Minnesota, and he said, “When I arrived to lead seminars for a group of inmates, the chaplain took me aside and said, ‘Don’t forget, Bill. If Matthew 25. . . is right, you didn’t come here to bring Jesus to these guys; you came here to find him.’ That changed forever the way I would think about service.”

This can change forever the way we think about service, too. The true heart of Matthew 25 is not that we ought to serve needy people, but that the king of the universe identifies himself with needy people. This is how Jesus saves – he doesn’t look down from a distance but enters into the reality of those in need. And this is the kind of kingdom we are invited to join.

This kingdom is a place where the last are first and the first are last. This kingdom is a place where those who seek to be great must become servants of all. This kingdom is ruled by a king who is the least of these.

Rebecca Jordan Heys

Rebecca Jordan Heys is the Minister of Worship and Pastoral Care at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • RZ says:

    This is suxh a beautiful framework for the “judgment day.” If CS Lewis, Dallas Willard, and others are correct, it is not what you have done, believed, or confessed with your mouth, it is what you have become. The sheep are already sheep and the goats are already goats. In Matthew 25, Jesus simply acknowledges their choice of identity and destiny.
    Your summary statement is brilliantly provocative. “He doesn’t just tell you to care for the poor. He IS the poor. ” So powerful! In reading this and reflecting, I am dismayed by the tendency we zealous Christians can have to lose our capacity for being compassionate. In working at belonging, we can stop becoming.
    By the way, I loved Bill Robinson’s humble book on Christian leadership. Thanks for mentioning it. I hope you keep writing for us!

  • Al Mulder says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. Jesus is alwaays the Center — in every way.

  • Gertrude Bokhout says:

    Thank you Pastor for this reminder that Jesus is the poor.

  • Nathan DeWard says:

    I especially like the story from the penitentiary. So true!

  • Harlan VanOort says:

    I think this interpretation of Matthew 25 is correct, and therefore much of the church is not far from the kingdom.

  • Ron Rozema says:

    Brilliantly, profoundly simple and so very challenging. Thank you.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    So good. This is a great reflection for my day. Thank you.

  • Rodg Rice says:

    Thanks for setting me straight. Spot on, Pastor Rebecca. The story from Bill Robinson was the clincher.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    A hard teaching, King Jesus is one of the poor. Another hard teaching here is that it is a social judgment. All the nations will be assembled and judged based on how their nations treat the poor and needy. It is not just what we do or don’t do as individuals, it is what we do or don’t do as a nation. We can & must do better.

  • Lena says:

    “He (Jesus) IS the poor.” The most common interpretation of Matthew 25 is that when we help the poor, it is AS IF we were helping Jesus. I am surprised you would take this leap to actually say that Jesus IS the poor. I don’t know of any other Bible passage that would back your interpretation up.
    “This is how Jesus saves-he doesn’t look down from a distance but enters into the reality of those in need”. Very confusing statement. Do you mean that this is how Jesus saves the poor or is this how he saves people who are servants from hell? Either way, this is not explained well and quite a stretch of interpretation.

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