In America we have it pretty nice. We have most all our needs met. We have our struggles and hardships from time to time and our society is in an ever downward trend, but we are still generally very comfortable.
In the Old Testament, we see many examples of scarcity, poverty and religious persecution. We also see from New Testament prophecy that things will be much, much worse in the period described as end times. It is easy to show love for your neighbor right now while things are comfortable, but we also know what it says in Matthew 24:12 Matthew 24:12And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
American King James Version×about the end time, “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (KJV throughout). Is that a warning to the people who already love only themselves, or is it a warning to the people who try their best to love their neighbor as themselves? Do we think of it as a warning for us? Hopefully yes!
How do we prevent this from happening to us?
I want to focus on a passage that we may not have the clearest understanding of. If we examine it through an historical lens we can really bring the meaning home, to our comfort zone, helping us better relate to it.
Matthew 25:34 Matthew 25:34Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
American King James Version×breaks into a parable Jesus is giving about how He will separate sheep from goats upon His return. It says, “Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat, I was thirsty and ye gave me drink, I was a stranger and ye took me in, Naked and ye clothed me, I was sick and ye visited me, I was in prison and ye came unto me.”
In the next three verses the righteous answer Him and ask, “When did we do those things”? And in verse 40 He says, “In as much as you have done this to the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me”.
It may be tempting for us to think “I can jump in the car and go do any one of the things listed in pretty short order”. Yes, it wouldn't take long to complete each, checking them off in a checklist-like manner. We could theoretically complete everything on here and think we are “righteous” in approximately 5 hours and with a $50 or so budget. I think you will agree that this is not exactly what this passage means. The true theme here is giving service to our neighbor and practicing service in our daily lives. In the online United Church of God (UCG) Bible Study guides; Series 2 lesson entitled “How to Be a Good Neighbor”, it sums up this passage saying “When we help others in need, God says our ultimate reward will be becoming His children in the Kingdom of God. Although we may think of the good deeds we do as merely helping our fellow man and woman, God sees it as helping Him.”
The article essentially connects the two great commandments together. We are to love God with our heart, soul and might and we are to love our neighbor as ourself. While it is true that fulfilling the basic needs and services listed is helpful, there is deeper meaning in this section. If we look back to verse 34 and break it down a bit we get a better understanding.
“I was hungry and you gave me meat”
Meat: The word translated meat here literally means to eat. Jesus Christ spoke to seeing the hungry and providing food for them. Not necessarily meat, but it is interesting that it is translated as ‘meat’ because meat was not as common in the first century as it is today. We have a massive meat industry in America working constantly to feed our appetites, but back then? According to John E. Stambaugh in his book entitled The Ancient Roman City, “…meat was scarce except at sacrifices and dinner parties for the rich.” Meat was a special food that was usually saved for special occasions. That is why it was such a big deal when in the parable of the prodigal son the father killed the fatted calf to celebrate the happy occasion of the return of his son.
“I was thirsty and you gave me drink”
Thirst: For us today it is a simple thing to give someone a drink. Grab a cup, go to any faucet in the house and turn it on! However, the people of the first century did not have indoor plumbing. Unless you had potted water already, you had to walk out to a stream or go to a well to get water to drink. Neither of which was probably real handy, so either way it was not such a simple task! For us it may seem trivial, but it was a real chore for them. Doing something you wouldn’t want to do all the time, makes the service that much more meaningful.
“I was a stranger and you took me in”
Stranger: I think we may be able to relate to this one pretty well already. When we don’t know someone, we take certain risks in inviting them into our house.
“I was naked and you clothed me”
Clothing: Today we have automated machines to accomplish tasks such as making thread and weaving fabric, so making clothing is no big task. Back in biblical times clothing was not so easy and expedient to make. It took time and a lot of effort! Remember how they drew lots for Jesus Christ's clothing when he was crucified? Even a dead man's clothing was coveted. (Matthew 27:35 Matthew 27:35And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and on my clothing did they cast lots.
American King James Version×, John 19:24 John 19:24They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which said, They parted my raiment among them, and for my clothing they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.
American King James Version×, Mark 15:24 Mark 15:24And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots on them, what every man should take.
American King James Version×)
“I was sick and you visited me”
Sickness: The word translated ‘sick’ could also be translated ‘weak’ or ‘feeble’. Today we have highly trained medical personnel to take care of the weak and the sick. But there are many who do not have access to professional care. And there are many who need attention and the care of a gentle hand. We should be willing to assist those who need help; sometimes this means leaving our comfort zone to do so. Many times there are chores or errands that we can assist with, even if we are not able to provide direct medical care. We do not need to be a medical professional to visit and assist those in their time of physical distress.
“I was in prison and you came unto me”
Prison: Visiting a person in prison would really only cost us some of our time and the travel expenses to get there. Christ is speaking of serving God’s people even if we find they are in prison.
What should we do?
The general theme of this passage is that truly loving your brother as yourself is not just meeting a set of basic needs. Let's face it, for us the exact physical tasks described in this passage are pretty easy to do. For people of the first century it was a different story. We are to look at the spirit of these verses. Service can be hard work and may require sacrifice. God expects a much deeper level of service than the bare minimum.
In another quote from that UCG guide it says, “A person must have compassion if he or she wants to be able to genuinely help others. Human beings have a natural compassion, but too often we learn to shut our eyes and hearts to the needs around us. We should seek to reverse that trend, and we should ask God to give us His love and the deeper compassion that comes through His Holy Spirit.”
If we are striving to take on the character of God, we need to be willing to go the extra mile in service to one another. Today, that may be the difference between giving someone a ride when their car is broken down to really getting in there and getting greasy repairing it. Later, as the return of Christ approaches and Satan tightens his grip on this world in all-out war with God’s church, it may be the difference between those who hide, only caring about themselves, and those who stand upright as God’s righteous children.
For more information regarding Christian living, read the free Bible study aid Making Life Work.