‘The Least of These’

When you think of doing “Kingdom work,” what comes to mind? If you are like most American Christians, you think of evangelism—going out to share the gospel with the lost and call them to Christ. It’s the work we train our children for, giving them apologetics books to read and sending them on short-term missions trips. And it is good, necessary work! But it is not the only Kingdom work.

I have always been struck by Jesus’ choice in the famous parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. There are many different kinds of Christian traits which he could have chosen to characterize his followers, but as he describes the Judgment Day he says his sheep will be marked by their pattern of caring for the hungry and thirsty, of welcoming the strangers, of clothing the naked, of visiting the sick and imprisoned. That, Jesus says, is what defines his people.

And it’s not just Jesus. In Hebrews 13:1-3, the author turns from contemplating the awesome power of God and the glory of his Kingdom to remind his readers, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” James, with characteristic pithiness, says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Such admonitions stretch back into the Old Testament, which is full of reminders to care for widows and orphans and strangers.

Evangelical Christianity tends to disparage the “social gospel” movement because, historically, it has been long on social welfare efforts and short on actual gospel. No one who takes the good news of Christ seriously can be content to fill bellies and ignore souls. But perhaps we have gone too far in the other direction. The fact of the matter is that the New Testament epistles, and Jesus himself, expect care for the needy to be an integral part—perhaps even the most evident visible sign—of Christian faith.

It is easy to think of social service as valuable only as a vehicle for evangelism, but that is not how the Bible portrays it. We are to feed the hungry because they are hungry, not because it allows us to slip a tract under the plate. The Good Samaritan cared for the robbers’ bleeding victim because he was in need, not because the unconscious man offered an opportunity to share the gospel. And, Jesus told his audience, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:25-37). After all, he reminds us elsewhere, we are children of a heavenly Father who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). If you are caring for someone in need, you are doing Kingdom work. Period.

But what a powerful and effective testimony such selfless service offers! In a world that is drowning in noise and information and argument, a cup of cold water may carry more weight than a dozen sermons. When we truly follow the example of the One who washed his disciples’ feet, it is a testimony not just to the ones we serve, but also to our friends, our neighbors, our children. (I am convinced that young people would leave the church at significantly lower rates if more of them grew up watching their parents engage in meaningful, sacrificial service within their communities, both inside and outside the church.)

Understanding the breadth of Kingdom service also opens up opportunities for Christians whose primary giftings may not be verbal or intellectual. Of course, we should all be ready to share the gospel, relying on the Spirit’s help, but realistically most Christians are not gifted to preach on a street corner or debate an atheist on a college campus. When we cannot think of Christian work except in terms of verbal evangelism, it closes off whole avenues of fruitful service for individuals and entire churches—service that would please and glorify our Father for its own sake and would very likely end up being evangelistically effective as well!

The New Testament model is one of both verbal evangelism and practical service, both by individual believers and by the corporate church. Every Christian should be ready to either pull on work gloves or pull out a Bible, or ideally both, as the occasion requires. And every church should look for ways to serve their community in both word and deed, and encourage individual members to pursue those areas of service for which they are particularly gifted.

For you and me, in comfortable, prosperous America, it may be useful to ask ourselves this: When was the last time I performed an act of physical, practical service for someone else? Would my friends and children say my life is characterized by hospitality to strangers and care for the needy?

If not, what can you do to change that? Because Jesus says you should. There are people who are needy, in one way or another, at the nursing home down the road, at the soup kitchen downtown, and almost certainly sitting somewhere near you in church each Sunday. Your Father knows your resources and the demands upon you in this particular season of life, and he does not expect you to fix every problem for every person, but he does ask this: Go find that person who needs something you have, and give it to them. You have the assurance of our Savior and King, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Header photo by Marc Brüneke under CC BY 2.0, cropped

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