A lot of ink has been spilled on the passage about the sheep and the goats. Admittedly, it is a difficult passage, containing many Semitisms and cultural distinctives. However, at face value the text seems to boil down to this simple point: we will be judged according to the compassion we show to those in need.
Last night I taught from this passage, and offered three simple characteristics of compassion. First, compassion is mercy in action. It’s not a feeling or an emotion, such as sympathy or empathy. It’s tangibly acting on a need. The word compassion simply means “to suffer with.” So to show compassion is to walk along side those who suffer and to enter their experience of suffering. (Matthew 25:35-36)
A second characteristic of compassion is that compassion takes the initiative. It is intentional. It’s not passive or reactive. It is responsive. In the passage of concern, Jesus commended those who offered him food, water, shelter, clothing, hospitality, medical care and visitiation. Those who were commended answered blankly, “When did we see you…?” I think it’s fascinating that those who were commended for serving Jesus did not necessarily see the face of Jesus in the faces of those they served. But they did it anyway, and were rewarded accordingly. (Matthew 25:37-39) Their compassion was unconditional, as if to suggest that not everyone has the purest of motives in showing mercy.
A final characteristic I would offer is that compassion puts one in close proximity with those in need. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, HCSB). Jesus calls those who suffer his brothers and sisters. He holds the suffering close to his heart as he would his own family. Only when we are willing to enter the world of the suffering and dwell in close proximity will we really begin to make an impact. The thing about being the incarnational presence of Christ in the world is that you have to be present. You have to enter their world, serve their needs, and listen to their stories. And story is the power that unlocks the heart.