Just yesterday, someone and I had a conversation about today’s gospel lesson (Matt. 25:31-46). We were discussing how some people are kinder than others, and he quoted a verse from this passage: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” He said to me, “I’ve always tried to do that because I think Jesus meant it.” He’s right; Jesus did.
I’ve been on a kingdom-coming focus for the last few months, so forgive me if I wander down that path again today. What did Jesus really call us to do? In this passage, he calls us to take care of those in need—the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned. When the righteous are met by the king at the gate to his kingdom, they are surprised to find that they had indeed done all of these things to the king himself. “When did we see you in need and minister to you?” they ask. The king replies, “When you did it to one of the members of my family, you did it to me.”
I like the way the NRSV translates this story by emphasizing “members of [the king’s] family” rather than the literal “brothers.” Usually, I can figure out when gender-specific language should be neutered, but this time I need a leg-up from the NRSV. We are called to minister to members of the king’s family. And, by stressing the family concept, it becomes clear to me that Jesus didn’t have in mind only those who were especially singled out as his neediest brothers and sisters but any who has need. We take care of members of our kingdom family because, in so doing, we are ministering to the king himself.
As a child, I always expected that someone I denied a cup of water would suddenly transform into an angry Jesus, who was disappointed at my unwillingness to help out. I think I had Hebrews 13:2 (entertaining angels unaware) confused with Matthew 25:40. But we are not called to clothe the naked because one of them might be Jesus himself. We are called to meet the needs of our community—our family—because we are the body of Christ. We are Christ’s presence here on earth, and, if we take that seriously, then ministering to those among us in need is what it means to attend our heavenly king.
If we take seriously the kingship of Christ and we take seriously our prayer that the will of the kingdom be brought to earth as in heaven, we must minister to the body of Christ in the same way that we would minister to Christ if bodily present among us. I’m not doing that because of some hyperbolic story Jesus tells about a king and his servants. I’m doing that because there is no distinction between those in need and Jesus himself. This isn’t an analogy. Jesus was serious about his instruction. He meant it.