In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we see the great conversion of Saul. He is a fervent Jew, a Pharisee, determined to put down this heretical splinter group of Jews known as Christians. While riding to Damascus to arrest some of those he believes to be criminals he meets the risen Jesus in an encounter so dramatic he is thrown from his horse and blinded. Jesus’ question to Saul:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
But Saul never persecuted Jesus. Not directly. He only persecuted his followers, yet Jesus describes this persecution as having been done directly to him. We must take Jesus at his word on this, for he is very serious about it. In fact, while He was alive on earth and in the passage we read today, Jesus said it is by this standard that we will be judged.
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no 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 also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
(Matthew 25: 31-46)
Twice Jesus tells us that how we treat others in this life affects him directly. The key here is to notice that Jesus is not simply saying that how we treat other reflects back on our character. How we treat others is not simply a measure of the charity in our hearts. It is not just a gauge or yardstick that measures how well we have understood and live Jesus’ message. Jesus says that our actions are felt directly by him. He knows our actions intimately. Not just in the abstract way that God knows everything that happens and not just in a spiritual way that Jesus is empathic with the suffering of all people. Jesus statement is a declarative statement, what we do to others we do to him. When you show kindness to another who is downtrodden and that person experiences relief from suffering, Jesus experiences that relief. When you deny the least of us your charity, Jesus experiences that pain.