On the Wednesday night of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland last week there was a discussion on mercy ministries (or practical care for those in need). During the discussion reference was made to Matthew 25. In that chapter, God’s people are confused when Jesus says to them at the judgement that they saw him hungry and gave him food; saw him thirsty and gave him water. Jesus says to them:
Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me. Matt 25:40
Those words, and those preceding them (‘when I was in prison you visited me’, etc.) often cause consternation because it is the deeds of those who showed kindness that are the basis of the Father’s judgment. The words are not easy to understand. ‘When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink…’ Do these words mean that Jesus is present in everyone? Or do they only refer to good things done to other Christians? Is it all good deeds, or only those things that are done to Christians that matter in the judgement? I think the answer lies somewhere in between.
The New Testament teaches the truth of the identification of Jesus Christ with his people through the concept of union with Christ. The apostle Paul often portrays Christians as being ‘in Christ’. And this ties in with the words of John 15, where Jesus speaks of himself as a vine and of all Christians as being incorporated into him as branches, either fruitful or unfruitful. When we meet one another’s needs as Christians, we are showing kindness to Christ himself.
There’s a great story about Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who was a Christian back in the 4th century, when Christians were in the minority. Walking in Amiens one day, Martin encountered a beggar by the side of the street in the freezing winter conditions. Martin stopped and used his sword to cut his large, thick officer’s cloak in half, giving a now ragged-edged half to the beggar to keep him warm. That night, Martin had a dream. In it, Jesus appeared wearing a ragged-edged military cloak. ‘Who gave you that cloak?’ asked one of the angels. ‘My friend Martin gave it to me,’ replied the Lord. It’s a moving story and a great illustration of Matthew 25.
I don’t know if the beggar in the story of Martin of Tours believed in Jesus when Martin met him, but if he didn’t perhaps it was Martin’s simple kindness as a Christian soldier that showed him the way to faith. Those who we do good to might not yet be identifiable as Christians, but the very act of kindness that we do might be the reason why they come to follow Jesus in faith. It is entirely possible that the one receiving a cup of water, or food, or clothes, or a visit is not a Christian when they receive from us, but at the judgement they will be counted as ‘one of the least of these’ because the kindness they received helped to bring them to faith. In that case our kindnesses were to Christ because they were to one of his own.
Does Matthew 25 give any basis for the church organising mercy ministries? I believe it does. A right understanding of Matthew 25 motivates mercy ministry to all.