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Serving the Least of These: Who? How? Why?


One of the things that you find in relationships is the more you love someone and get to know them the more you begin to love what they love and care about what they care about.

For example, Callie’s parents, Steve and Mary, are in town this weekend and they’re with us this morning. Their son Tyler happens to love NASCAR. Steve does as well. And as for Mary, well, not as much. On its own, I know that she could take it or leave it. And I suppose I’m kind of with Mary on this one. As far I can tell NASCAR is just one fast car following other fast cars that together make endless left turns. But you know what, who cares what I think?!

The fact is, Steve loves it. Tyler loves it. And so Mary, because of her love for them, has begun to love it, let’s just say she at the very least has taken it upon herself to take an interest in it. She knows the names of the biggest races and most accomplished drivers. And so she knows enough to know that today’s Indy 500, as wonderful as it is, well, that’s not NASCAR, but that the Daytona 500 is.

The point is the more you love someone and get to know them the more you begin to love what they love and care about what they care about.

And this is the very dynamic that Jesus desires to see blossom within us when we think about the relationship between two great commandments, to love the Lord God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. After all, why do we as followers of Jesus love our neighbor? We do so because of our love for God. And the more you love someone and get to know them the more you begin to love what they love and care about what they care about. Except with God, his loves are not a what, but rather a who – people made in his image. And so put it all together and what you have is this - God’s people love God’s people because God loves his people (if that even makes any sense at all).

And it’s by connecting those dots that helps me best make sense of our passage today, where Jesus says,

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on Justice and the way we’ve been approaching it is by doing a flyover tour of the overarching story of the bible, first through the Old Testament and God’s people through the nation of Israel. And today, we turn the corner to Jesus, or the Gospels, that is. What, after all, did Jesus have to say on this subject of justice? Though the word itself didn’t come up in the scripture that Levin just read, I think today’s passage, the story of the Sheep and the Goats, of all of Jesus’s teachings, is one of the better ones at getting us to the heart of justice and the restorative kind of justice we’ve been talking about, a justice that works toward partnering with Jesus in stepping into our broken and hurting world and working towards restoring, recreating, re-ordering this world into all that God intended for it to be.

I’ll briefly set up the story itself and from there I’ll give you our outline for today. First, it begins by describing what it will be like when Jesus returns, where it says that in verse 31:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory … he will sit on his glorious throne.

This is a picture of Jesus’s second coming when “he will come to judge the living and the dead.” (or so go the words of the Apostle’s Creed that we recited a few minutes ago). Our scripture says that all the nations will be gathered, and Jesus, the King of glory that he is, will separate everyone into two groups, just like a shepherd would with his sheep and goats at the end of each day.

The question of course we wonder is, what will be the reason or difference between the two groups, the sheep and the goats? And what will it be that makes for a sheep versus what makes for a goat?

Well, as we see in the story, Jesus doesn’t divide the group based on where they’re from, or what language they speak, or what denomination they call home, or what sports they follow or don’t. All of that will one day be irrelevant.

Instead, here’s how Jesus says he’ll separate them. He’s separating them based on whether or not, or to what extent they have loved and served and cared for the least of those around them.

Those who have lived a life of service to the least of these are the sheep, who will be ushered into eternal life, those who haven’t are the goats, who will go away, as the story says, into eternal punishment.

Here we find a teaching from Jesus that should have a way of both warming our hearts and stopping us cold. Warming our hearts because when we serve the least of these among us, we’re serving Jesus, and yet, stopping us cold because eternal punishment awaits us if we don’t. Now to all of that, hold on tight, we’ll try and make sense of those mixed emotions near the end.

In the meantime, let’s dive into our outline for today. What does it look like to love and serve and care for the “least of these” in our everyday life? To answer that, we’ll think through three diagnostic questions. Who, How, Why. Who are the least of these? How do we serve them? And why should we do it in the first place?

Let’s start with the first: Who

Looking at verse 35 and 36, you’ll quickly see six groups of people mentioned: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the person without enough clothes, the sick, the prisoner. In many ways, it’s a very similar range of people to the four people groups that we saw God calling the people of Israel to serve years before: the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the immigrant, and since we had that conversation a couple weeks ago, we’ll keep this section relatively short.

To sum it all up, Jesus says, “whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.” Here I think we can rightly infer that Jesus isn’t trying to provide an exhaustive list, but rather trying to paint a picture as to whom “the least of these” could include. There are many more that I think we could easily and reasonably add:

The clerk at the counter who is making at or close to minimum wage working two or three jobs. The person holding the “Help” sign outside of Safeway. The kids on free and reduced lunch. The parents who work full time yet struggle to pay for childcare. The college student who is unable to find affordable housing. The widow who is unable to mow their lawn or run to the store to get groceries. That is just to name a few.

The least of these are those among us who are overlooked and overwhelmed, the ignored and abandoned, the lonely and forgotten.

And when Jesus says, as he does in verse 40. “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” that kind of familial brother and sister language might be a sign that he’s talking specifically about the community of believers, since that’s usually how it’s typically used, but even still, it’s probably best we understand this one as everyone, both those inside and outside of church.

Whether that person is Christian or a church goer or not, Jesus values each of them so much, Jesus cares about them so much, that he says to each and every one of us, “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

So friends, before we move on, I want you to put a name and face to someone who might fall within this category. I want you to hold on to them as we continue through this message.

All this to say, that’s who we’re called to serve. Now let’s talk about how. This section will be a good bit longer.


Jesus answers this question as well, and here he gets really specific, where he says,

35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

And so, how do we serve those who are hurting and in need among us? We can do so by providing basic relief by meeting tangible needs.

And so while, yes, some of the many ways we can love and serve those around us is by telling them about Jesus, or praying for them, or listening to them when they’re grieving, we also love and serve those around us by shoveling their snow, running simple errands, watching people’s kids or bringing over a movie and hot bowl of soup when they’re sick. It’s all part of loving and serving the people Jesus has placed in front of us and caring for the whole person, both body and soul.

And while we’re on the subject of how we serve, though this passage itself is focused on the crucial responsibility we have in meeting basic relief and immediate needs, relief itself is not the only way in which we can serve, especially when we consider all of this in light of the larger context of justice.

Think of it this way, if someone is hungry, you can give them a loaf of bread, that’s relief. Beyond that, you can help them gain the skills and resources in order to find and hold down a steady job so that they can buy their own bread. That’s moving beyond relief to development. And then one layer beyond that, a person could ask the massively complex question, “How do we solve world hunger? If it’s true that there’s more than enough food on planet earth to feed everyone, and yet not everyone is being fed, how do we fix that? How can we create a world where no one goes hungry?

Those kinds of questions are what we might call social reform and we’ll discuss this kind of justice in more detail in a couple weeks. Relief, Development, Social Reform. Each is crucial. Christians should pursue all three. And yet, as I think Jesus reminds us here, it starts with relief. After all, what good would it be to tell a hungry man that he can’t be fed until world hunger is solved first?

Jesus implores us to start with relief and therefore one of the ways we serve the least is by meeting their basic, everyday needs.

In addition, consider one more dynamic at play in terms of how we serve the least of these. Oftentimes, when we serve those in great need, there’s always this perpetual “us” and “them” dynamic. There’s “us” who have the money and resources and time and support to give and there’s “them” who are in need. And yet, how do we create a “we” of togetherness? How do we turn “us” and “them” into “we”?

For example, consider another category of people who might be considered the “least of these”, say those with learning difficulties. Back in the 17 and 18th centuries, there was a sizable number of deaf people living on Martha’s Vineyard. And those who were deaf were at a massive disadvantage in terms of being able to integrate themselves into the life and fabric of the community. And yet here’s what the majority of people on the island did. Rather than forcing the deaf to learn how to read lips and compensate for their learning difficulties, the majority learned sign language so that they could communicate with them! How beautiful is that?! Rather than forcing the “least of these” to reckon with their own disadvantage, the broader community disadvantaged themselves instead and got on their level and in turn the whole community was better and richer for it. In other words, they took “us” and “them” and made themselves a “we.”

Now, what might this look like here in Dillon, Montana? Well, maybe for us, in a valley where many migrant farmers call come, maybe we take it upon ourselves to learn Spanish, and no, maybe not total fluency, but maybe some level of knowledge beyond being able to find the nearest bathroom.

The point is, how might you take an “us” vs. “them” dynamic, and make it a “we”?

For as Jesus says to each and every one of us, “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

Think back to your person that came to mind earlier. Now ask yourself, how will you serve them this week?

The Who, the How, now let’s get to the final and most important of the three, and that is,


Why is it that you and I should care about all of this in the first place? Why bother serving the least among us? What ought to be our purpose, our reason, our motivation?

This diagnostic question will help us address the somewhat troubling nature of this story:

After all, what is this story telling us about how we get into heaven? What is it communicating in terms of what it’s going to take to receive eternal life? In many ways, it seems in direct opposition of what most every other part of scripture seems to be saying, that it’s not our works, but our faith and belief in Christ alone that gets us into heaven. How do we make sense of this one?

Well, notice that there’s an odd wrinkle in the story where there’s an element of surprise and confusion among the two groups as to why they are in the group they’re in. Jesus says to the sheep, “I was hungry and you fed me, and so on and so on,” but then the sheep respond by saying,

‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

You see, the fact that each group was surprised as to why they were in the group they were in tells us that their reason, their motivation for loving and serving the least of these wasn’t to get into heaven. And it shouldn’t be our motivation either. Because if that ultimately becomes our motivation then what can happen is that we turn our love for our neighbor itself into projects to get done rather than people to be loved.

This is where I think we’re best served to go back to the beginning. The more you love someone and get to know them the more you begin to love what they love and care about what they care about. Our love for God will over time naturally grow and blossom and overflow into love for our neighbor. That’s not to say that loving and serving the least of these among us is always easy, no way, sometimes it’s really stinking hard. And that’s not to say that it’s automatic or even feels natural, no sometimes it’s deliberate and intentional. Which is okay, after all, so often the greater love is not when it’s a feeling, but rather a joyful choice.

And we’ll finish with this:

Imagine this scenario with me here: You’ve got your person in mind that God is calling you to serve. You have an idea as to how you will serve them. Now imagine, having served them, they look at you and say:

“Why are you doing this? Why would you go out of your way to serve me in this way?”

Friends, what would you say? How would you respond?

You can immediately come up with a couple wrong answers here. “I’m doing this so I can qualify for eternal life.” Hmm, that doesn’t sit right. Strike one. Or you could say, “I’m called to serve the least of these” and yet that implies you consider them one of the least. Strike two.

Yet what if in describing your why you made it not about you, or even about them, but rather about Jesus?

After all, Jesus says, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

For Jesus, the eternal Son of God that he is, left the comforts of heaven, to become poor and homeless and hungry. Yet he’s the bread of life who nourishes and fills our souls like bread does for our body. He’s the living water, who satisfies and quenches our thirst in the desert of this world, he’s the good shepherd, who calls us by name and welcomes us in.

You could say in that moment, “I love and serve a God who desires to feed hungry people, who gives refreshment to thirsty people, who welcomes in lonely people, and who gives rest to weary people. Here’s a taste, a glimpse of what our God is like.”

That’s a start, and yet you could take it even further:

For Jesus, our Lord and Savior, left his royal robe, crown and throne, to spend his last moments and hours to be stripped of his clothes, though he was the Great Physician was so physically sick he could not carry his own cross, and though he was fully God with every power known to man, allowed himself to be captured and held captive on a cross, so that we could be set free from sin.

And so, you could say in that moment, “I love and serve a God who experienced the depths of human pain and suffering so that we could hold fast to a greater love. Here’s a taste, a picture of what God has done for me.”

Friends, fix your eyes on Jesus. Dwell on what he did for you through his sacrificial love on the cross. Loving the least of these, the neighbor in your midst won’t always be easy, it won’t always feel natural, but rest assured that over time the rest will follow.

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