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“I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see you hungry and fed you? Or thirsty and gave you drink? And when did we see you as a stranger and welcome you? Or naked and clothed you? And when did we see you sick, or in prison and came to you? And the King shall answer and say to them: Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of these my brothers, even the least, you did it to me. Then he shall also say to them on the left hand… I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. Naked and you did not clothe me. Sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Then they shall also answer, saying: Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to you? Then he shall answer them, saying: Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of these least, you did not do it to me.” (Mt. 25:3446).

The Lord says that our attitude to Him when He was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked and imprisoned is going to be the crucial decider of our judgment outcome. The historical Jesus was all these things on the cross. Let’s just prove that:

I was hungry - The Lord was hungry on the cross. The spear thrust resulted in a clear separation of blood and water, suggesting that His bowels had completely emptied at some point between the last supper and His death. The psychological trauma of Gethsemane, with sweat as drops of blood, would surely have involved such bowel movements.

I was thirsty - The Lord said “I thirst”. A stranger- The Lord’s blood money was used to buy the place of “strangers” (the same word used in Mt. 27:7 s.w.); He was treated as a Gentile especially in His death on the cross.

Naked - The Lord Jesus was naked or at least without clothing on the cross. Crucifying Him afresh puts Him to a naked shame (Heb. 6:6).

Sick - The same Greek word translated 'weak'. “He was crucified in weakness... we also are weak in Him” (2 Cor. 13:4). The Lord carried our weakness / sickness (Mt. 8:17, quoting from the prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus in Isaiah 53).

In prison - “Prison” was understood by Peter as a fair description of the Lord’s sufferings, “to prison and to death” (Lk. 22:33). In His death, the Lord went to the “spirits in prison”, He was with them  / us there (1 Pet. 3:19). But “prison” wasn’t necessarily understood as a building with “Prison” written on it. Legion was “bound”, imprisoned, with fetters (Lk. 8:29 s.w.); and yet still free. Likewise Paul was ‘bound’ or ‘imprisoned’ to a soldier (Acts 28:16 s.w.). The Lord's binding could therefore be fairly understood as an imprisonment. And He was imprisoned at least for 24 hours before His death.

So we can say that hunger, thirst, being a stranger, naked, weak and imprisoned are all things which the Lord experienced during His life and especially in His death. His brethren, His body, share His sufferings. We are to minister to them as we would have done were we there beholding the sufferings of Christ on the cross. We should emerge from such ‘beholding’, as we do it at the memorial meeting, practically resolving to reflect it to His brethren. And we are the more motivated by realizing that all those situations of hunger, thirst, imprisonment, weakness and nakedness are in fact metaphors for our own spiritual poverty, which the Lord through the cross responded to, in utter grace. As He has done spiritually to us, so we are to do, spiritually and materially, to others. All those symptoms of poverty are often (although far from always) the result of mismanagement, weak motivation, unhealthy copying patterns, chronically missed chances… and yet in spiritual terms, those things are the story of our lives. In the materially poor we see exact reflections of ourselves, of our spiritual poverty and failures. As the Lord has graciously responded to us in our weakness and self-inflicted poverty, so we are to do to His people.

Just as Jacob saw himself in Laban, so in the materially poor we see ourselves in the mirror - in spiritual terms. If we were to be standing before the cross of Jesus, we would do anything for Him. Imagine Him there speaking to you, through a mouth full of broken teeth, gasping at the pain of filling lungs with oxygen as He hung crucified. If He asked for a drink, we would run to get it, and bravely risk our lives to bring it to Him. But the cross in essence is still there. We meet Him crucified today through our encounters with the least of His brethren and their needs. The art of our lives together is to perceive the Christ in each other, especially in those who are “the least of My brethren”. The word is elsewhere used about the spiritually least. And Paul alludes to it in saying that our attitude to the feeblest, weakest members of the body of Christ is so vital (1 Cor. 12:21); the weak are indispensable to us. To turn away from them in irritation, to put up barriers against them for their weakness whereby we resign our obligation to care for them… is to run the risk of condemnation according to the parable.

The Lord’s Response to Us

He responds to us then, at judgment day, as we responded to the needs of His brethren today. Let’s go through the list again:

Took Me in - The same word translated “gathered” in :32. As they gathered Him, so He now gathers the wheat into His eternal barn.

Clothed Me - As the believers clothed Him, so He will clothe them (Rev. 3:5; 7:9; 19:8; being clothed upon with immortality is definitely a picture of salvation). He will act spiritually to us, in terms of salvation, as we have acted materially to His brethren as they in their lives, as the body of Christ, experience various aspects of His life, sufferings and death.

Visited Me - The idea is not really to pop around to someone's house or hospital ward. The idea really is of identity, with a view to salvation. Thus God visited us in Christ to save us (Lk. 1:68,78; 7:16 “God has visited His people”; Acts 15:14 God “visited the Gentiles to take out a people”; Heb. 2:6 “what is man that You visit him”). This is the ‘visiting’ in view. As He ultimately ‘visits’ us to save, crossing the huge distance between God and man to do so, likewise we are to ‘visit’ our brethren. Again, what we do materially for those in Christ is a reflection of what He spiritually does for us. This is to be the motivation; to perceive that their poverty, their imprisonment, all of which may be their fault, is a reflection of our spiritual need and poverty, as we, like them, miss chance after chance to pull ourselves out of our poverty, and fall down too easily into survival and coping mechanisms that bind us to our poverty.

In prison - Prison is a metaphor for where sin and spiritual debt leads us. We are all hopelessly in spiritual debt and therefore in the debtors’ prison (Mt. 18:30). He comes to us in our self-inflicted model to save us.

A Shock for All

The parable implies the day of judgment will be such a surprise. Both righteous and wicked will find that they are respectively commended and criticized for things which surprise them. Both groups will almost argue with the Lord Jesus that He hasn’t made the right decision concerning them. It’s only a highly convicted man who would dare do that. Their shock is because they utterly failed to appreciate the extent to which Jesus was manifested in their brethren- especially in the least of them. “When did we see you?” is the response of both wise and foolish. “See”, eido, means effectively ‘to know’. The Lord has just used the same word in warning that He will have to tell the foolish virgins “I know you not” (:12). Here He explains that this is in fact because they knew Him not, in that they didn’t recognize His brethren. To not recognize His brethren means that He will not recognize us.

We need to observe that the goats are rejected not so much for their lack of actions, but for failing to discern Christ in the least of His brethren. Then, the rejected will finally see their good works in context. They will realize how little works really meant. The faithful already knew that - for they objected when the Lord told them all the good things they had done. The list of works in Mt. 25:35,36 include the following: giving food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, a bed to the homeless, help to the sick. Yet these are the very things which Job claims he had done, when he clears himself from all his accusers (Job 31:17-20). They will confidently deny it when Jesus points it all out to them. They served with no expectation of reward; so much so that they even forgot what they did. Giving without any thought of getting anything back is a must for all of us who seek to truly manifest God: for this is exactly what He does and has done, minute by minute, down through the millennia of indifferent, unresponsive human history.

And so the Lord explains that “inasmuch” as they did or omitted to do things for the least of His brethren, so they did to Him. The Greek suggests an exact correspondence. Whatever is done to the Lord’s brethren is done to Him. This is the point of the Lord’s teaching. He is not simply saying that if we do good practical works we shall be saved, and if we don’t, then we shall not be. He is saying that it is what is done or not done to Him which is significant. So the point of the teaching is an appeal to recognize and serve His brethren, rather than to simply do good works. The rejected of Mt. 7:22 “did many wonderful works” - and the same word is used here, “you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers”. “One of” may seem superfluous until we realize that ‘one of the least of these’ is an invitation to look at the group of sheep and focus upon any one of the faces. This is a unique insight into the day of judgment. We are enabled to imagine ourselves there. The Lord is inviting us to imagine the colossal importance of perceiving Him in His brethren, and treating them as Him. If only this principle were understood in church life now, the church would be a beacon of light in this world’s darkness. All rejection, spitefulness, hard speaking against other believers… would disappear. We are to treat others in Christ as if they were Him. And that is the basis of our acceptance or rejection. “Of these…” invites us to imagine a nod towards the crowd of sheep, with an invitation to focus upon “one” of those faces. The same faces we engage with today.

| Duncan Heaster

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