41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
As we read this passage, a very tricky thought could enter into our minds, “if I care for others then I will gain entrance into heaven and be considered righteous.” This isn’t Jesus’ point as it clearly contradicts other statements in the scriptures. In talking about the difference between the sheep and goats of this metaphor, we must recognize that these actions are simply the “fruit” of being saved and not a way to earn salvation. In James 1 we read:
27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t do these things; we just shouldn’t expect them to gain us any favor or salvation points for when this foretold judgment day comes. In Romans 4, the Apostle Paul goes to great lengths to explain this principle that our salvation comes from faith, not by works. He uses the example of the great spiritual forefather Abraham (whom both Jews and Christians alike can identify with):
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.
So then, this attitude of feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, and caring for strangers is a result of having had a spiritual renewal through faith in God and what Jesus has done for us. Too often we get it flipped around and think we must do these good things in order to gain favor with God. He might be pleased in the good we do but without the covering of Christ’s blood for our sins, we still cannot enter into the presence of a pure and holy God. Quite frankly, if we could, then God would be quite a disappointing entity, but that’s a different lesson altogether. The truth of the matter is that through our salvation we are able to fully and most effectively serve and love others. Sure we can do good things to others without being saved, but all it really does is serve ourselves, not the Kingdom.
What we must recognize here is not the actions but the attitude behind them. Look at what Jesus hits us with in Matthew 7:
15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’
If we only try to do “good things” of our own cognizance and power, we will continue to behave as hypocrites. Jesus explains that there will be people who preach the gospel and claim to be close with God but in reality it is just a farce. You will be able to see through the actions of their lives that they are fakers, speaking and acting to gain credulity with the people around them (just like the Pharisees). It isn’t about what they do but why they do it. This is why in verses 21-23 we see that even if we cast out demons and raise the dead it won’t matter unless we have entered into a relationship with God Himself.
So as we reflect upon whether or not we will be grouped with the goats or the sheep, let us be sure we evaluate not what we are doing, but our reasons for doing it.