Why That Homeless Man Probably Isn't Jesus
Where is Jesus Among the Needy in Your Life?
Maybe you've heard this identification before: “Yes, when we were ministering to that homeless gentleman in front of the old firehouse, I knew we were ministering to Jesus himself, just like the Bible says.” Of course the individual in question could be any number of people in need: an incarcerated relative, a child in 'the system', a dying neighbor. But does the New Testament really teach that when we bless such people, we are actually blessing Jesus in disguise?
This identification comes from Matthew 25:34-36, which describes Jesus as judge on the last day:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’”
But as Matthew 25 continues, the obvious question is raised by the “blessed”, those who were a blessing to Jesus: (vs. 37-39) “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’”
Jesus provides an explanation in verse 40: “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Now, even a casual reading of the New Testament Gospels makes it clear that Jesus cared about the poor and needy (cf. Luke 10:30-37; 14:13). Moreover, this heart reflects the heart of the righteous man in the Old Testament (cf. Job 29:11-17; Psalm 41:1; Proverbs 14:31; Ezekiel 18:16). But is Jesus speaking here about the poor, the sick, the prisoner, etc., in general? Even though the passage has been applied this way, Jesus is very specific about those with whom he identifies: “the least of these my brothers”.
If we had arrived at Matthew chapter 25 by way of chapters 1-24, we would know that Jesus was speaking here about disciples in need, not the needy in general. While Jesus did have biological half-brothers and sisters (12:46; Mark 6:3), he makes it a point in Matthew 12:48-50 to stress that his truest siblings are “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven”. Consequently, he taught his followers, “you are all brothers... call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (23:8-9) And just as he identifies his disciples as his brothers and sisters, he also emphasizes in this Gospel how closely he identifies with each one of them. As he explained to those who followed, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Jesus isn't talking here about a literal child. As the context in chapter 18 makes clear, Christ is referring to the disciple who is walking in childlike humility (18:4)(cf. 10:40).
So if Jesus is describing a judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, a judgment in which (v. 32) “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”, a judgment based on blessing those needy disciples with whom Jesus identifies, who exactly is being judged here? Though we could say it was everyone who had an opportunity to care for Christians in need, I believe the context helps us narrow it down to everyone who professes faith in Jesus. The judgment scene Jesus describes here follows three parables that address what it means to be ready for his second coming (24:45-51; 25:1-13; 25:14-30). In each of these parables faithful servants are separated from faithless servants. A similar sifting is found in chapter 13:41-43, where the “weeds” are separated from the “wheat”, and in chapter 7:23-25, where Jesus is soberingly explicit: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”.
Therefore, what we have in the final section of Matthew 25 is a description of how Jesus will separate true Christians from false Christians. What will distinguish true believers? In this passage, it is their love for “the least of these” that is emphasized. To be clear, Scripture teaches that we are saved through faith alone, by God's grace alone. We are not saved on the basis of our love for the least of these. But what Jesus is stressing here is that our love for the least of these is evidence that we have been saved by God's grace. The Apostle John would later explain this same connection:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers...  By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (I John 4:14, 16-18)
How can we be ready for the return of Christ? We can be clear about what genuine faith genuinely looks like within the church: love for all with whom Jesus Christ identifies, even “the least of these”. For some, this practically means going beyond simply sharing space with fellow disciples on Sunday. This passage is a call to real connection and caring (or maybe, allowing others to connect with and care for you). For others, God has provided here a powerful reminder that seeking out and serving Jesus often means seeking out and serving those among us who are especially burdened. It can be tempting to 'do church' with the people you like, the people ready to pour into you, the people with whom ministry just seems easier. But when we seek out and serve those brothers and sisters experiencing real and sometimes desperate need, those struggling, those in painful situations, dealing with complicated emotions, the people with whom ministry can seem harder, we can be encouraged that, according to his own words, we will meet Jesus there.
Ministering to that homeless man might mean ministering to Jesus, if in fact that homeless man genuinely belongs to Jesus, by grace through faith. But often this isn't the case. Of course, Jesus still calls us to serve that man, and anyone who is in need. That man may not be Jesus, but like the rest of us, he needs Jesus. Maybe the Apostle Paul best summarized God's call to mercy and the emphasis of this passage from Matthew 25. Paul wrote:
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
More in Grace Extending
September 15, 2022Can a Genuine Christian Walk Away from the Faith?
August 31, 2022Does “Rejoice Always” Mean the Absence of Sadness?
July 17, 202210 Ways to Find Rest at the Cross