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I have a question concerning the following passage (Matthew 25:41-46):

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire 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, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

How do you have to read this passage?

Does it mean that you have a duty to help other people in general (giving them something to eat, to drink, heal them and so on)? Or does it mean that the people back then only had to help Jesus? Does it mean that you only have to help one person or as many as you are able to? And if you don't do that you will literally go to hell?

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From a conservative Evangelical perspective I suggest that the main and contextual theme of the larger passage from which you excerpted verses 41-46 is judgment. Not just any judgment, however, but the judgment of an all-knowing King who knows the righteous from the unrighteous.

As for the eschatological implications of this passage, I won't dare to speculate. I will suggest, however, that the King is Jesus Christ, described in Matthew 24 and 25 as the "Son of Man" (25:31), and his ability and worthiness to judge are taken for granted both here and elsewhere.

The separation of sheep from goats, as I've already intimated, is Jesus's way of illustrating the judgment process by which he will one day distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous, the true believers from the unbelievers, the ones who are truly God's children through the new birth from the ones who are not.

As for what appear to be criteria for being judged to be righteous (viz., feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, inviting the stranger in, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and visiting the imprisoned), Jesus is not teaching salvation by works.

As has often been said, the salvation which is by faith alone does not come alone. With the new birth (or birth from above, or regeneration) comes the God-given ability to demonstrate saving faith through good works, but not the requirement to earn salvation through good works.

Even the unrighteous in the current age in which we live perform the sorts of good deeds mentioned by Jesus, and more. They spearhead efforts to eradicate disease, they contribute money to worthwhile causes, and they campaign for reforms which will benefit every segment of society, particularly the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the have-nots.

A common utterance among the rich and famous is "I just feel the need to give back," whether that giving back is to the community in which they grew up or perhaps to a cause with which they identify. Another common expression is "to pay it forward," which suggests that generosity--even anonymous generosity, for example, has a way of becoming contagious. In helping others, people express their gratitude for having been helped themselves.

All these sentiments and good deeds are commendable. What will one day literally separate the sheep from the goats is a matter of motivation. On the one hand, the righteous care for the hungry, the thirsty, the outsider, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned, and they do these things as unto the Lord. Their primary motivation is to please the Lord and not to receive the accolades of the world nor to contribute one whit to the salvation already proffered to them at great cost to their Savior and Lord, the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep (see John 11:10 and 14).

On the other hand, the unrighteous, though they are not necessarily lacking in good deeds, fail to perform those good deeds as unto the Lord. Jesus said,

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’ (Matthew 25:45, my emphasis).

You ask if we "have a duty to help other people in general." Yes. Christians do have a duty to help other people. Clearly, we demonstrate our love for God by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves (see Matthew 22:36-40). That love may be expressed in seemingly small and seemingly insignificant ways (such as a cup of cold water given in Jesus' name--see Matthew 10:42 and Mark 9:41), yet when performed "as unto the Lord," God takes notice and rewards it.

In conclusion, Jesus' words are indeed challenging for both the righteous and unrighteous. For the righteous, they can fail to see Jesus in the person they are called to serve. What is more, they can begin to treat their good deeds as onerous duties rather than joyous acts of service. Worse still, they can become self-congratulatory and proud about what good little Christians they are, rather than recognizing they are but unworthy servants who owe their master a debt which can never be repaid.

For the unrighteous, Jesus' words are the death knell to a works-based salvation, since no amount of good works can merit the gifts of God's forgiveness and eternal life. As with Israel of old, so also with unbelieving Jews and Gentiles today (that is, until they throw themselves upon the mercy of God for the radical cleansing they need),

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away (Isaiah 64:6).

  • Thank you for this illuminating answer. You say that salvation is a matter of motivation. I can understand that up to a point (if you try to harm people but coincidentally help them that would still be bad) - but consider this scenario: You grew up as a Hindu and studied the religion sincerely which led you to believe that it is the only true religion (and Jesus is a false prophet of an non-existent God). To be a good Hindu you try to be a good person (care for the hungry, the thirsty, the outsider, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned) - does that mean that you will go to hell? – vonjd Nov 24 '17 at 12:28
  • @vonjd:A person does not go to hell for failing to perform good deeds. Nor does a person go to heaven for performing good deeds. The ultimate destiny of a person is determined by belief in Jesus and the efficacy of death to forgive sins.. The saying "There is something to believe and someone to receive" is quite accurate, biblically. The failure to believe in Jesus is what condemns a person. Moreover, the Bible teaches that every person is condemned by default for NOT believing in Jesus' death and resurrection. – rhetorician Nov 24 '17 at 14:50
  • @vonjd: Belief in Jesus, which is often (but not always) accompanied by good works befitting a child of God, is what saves a person. The thief on the cross who was crucified along with Jesus had no opportunity to engage in good works, and yet Jesus promised him eternal life in heaven for simply believing that Jesus was his Savior and Lord. Again, our ultimate destiny--heaven or hell--is a matter of belief (or the failure to believe) in Jesus and NOT a matter of good works, regardless of how many or how few good works we perform. Salvation follows belief and good deeds follow belief. Don – rhetorician Nov 24 '17 at 15:00
  • Ok, if your interpretation is correct it sounds more like an evil dictator using mind control to send people to his eternal concentration camp than a good God. Just saying. Thank you anyway. – vonjd Nov 24 '17 at 16:48
  • @rhetorician "Belief in Jesus, which is often (but not always) accompanied by good works befitting a child of God, is what saves a person" No, Jesus specifically says those who "do not bear fruit" in Him or those who "do not remain in Me," will be "cut off" and "thrown into the fire and burnt", i.e. sent to Hell. Just like the uselss servent who didn't use the talents (grace) of his master (God). And like His teaching here in the question is specifically teaching. – Sola Gratia Dec 22 '17 at 17:08
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Scripture - both Old Testament and New - is quite clear that one will be judged according to their works:

Psalm 62:12 (KJV)

For thou renderest to every man according to his work

Job 34:11 (KJV)

For the work of a man shall he render unto him, And cause every man to find according to his ways.1

Romans 2:5-6 (KJV)

But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds2

Revelation 20:12 (KJV)

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

Revelation 22:12 (KJV)

And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.

James 2:14 (KJV)

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?

The passage on the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) deals with the work of almsgiving in particular, which is also addressed in the Old Testament:

Proverbs 15:27 LXX (Brenton)

By alms and faithful dealings sins are purged away

Tobit 12:9 (KJV)

For alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin. Those that exercise alms and righteousness shall be filled with life

Sirach 3:30 (KJV)

Water will quench a flaming fire; and alms maketh an atonement for sins

In the teaching, Jesus refers to the least of these My brethren (τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων). Some have inferred this to mean His own disciples, but more likely He is referring to the poor in general. This would be consistent with the parable of the ten talents just prior (v.14-30). One commentary explains:

By "the least brethren" He means either His own disciples or, simply, all the poor. For every poor man is Christ's brother for the very reason that Christ, too, spent His life in poverty. See also God's righteousness, how He acclaims the saints; and see the good disposition of their mind, how they deny, with befitting modesty, that they have cared for Him. But the Lord accepts as for Himself the things that were done for the poor.3


1. LXX: Yea, he renders to a man accordingly as each of them does, and in a man’s path he will find him (Brenton)
2. Gr. ἔργα (erga) - "works"
3. Theophylact of Ohrid, Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew (tr. from the Greek; Chrysostom Press, 1992), p.219.

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If you see a needing person and you are able to help him, you do not ask whether he is a Christian or not, you just help: a physician heals not according to religious denomination of anybody, but according to the need of the patient. We all are patients of God - Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, Rastafarians etc. - and should treat each other as co-patients.

Will not it be evil if my atheist neighbours need my help more than my Christian neighbours, and I close my heart's vents of mercy for the first and open for the second because of the religious affinity? Will not then Christ, whose patients also those atheists are, say to me - "I was thirsty and you gave me not water!" Will I dare to answer Him boldly: "They were atheists, a th e i s t s, who denied Your existence, how can I be guilty in not helping them? You are bewildering me!" Then also the sun should be ordered to shed light only and exclusively upon Christians (of which denomination?), but if it is stupid to suppose that one can govern sun's rays according to one's religious doctrines, how much more stupid is to think that the uncreated Sun of Righteousness, God's co-eternal Son would shed light of His mercy qualifiedly and according to puny ideas hatched in 20 centimetre-long brains of humans?

So, if the Sun of Righteousness does not distinguish between His creations and His patients, and if He wants us to become His agents and His rays, so neither we should be puny distinguishers, but be infinite undistinguishers, as He is. Thus, the Gospels have a wonderful, divinely devised circular-argument logic as to whom one is obliged to and in what action Christ is pleased: Whom to help? Your neighbour! Who is your neighbour? Anybody, whom you help (Luke 10:36-37).

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That’s right. Help as much as you can. I believe it extends to supporting politicians that also support the work helping those that need help, including feeding the poor, helping immigrants get out of dangerous situations, supporting special education, adequate healthcare, special olympics. To support those that believe that in cutting taxes to benefit themselves at the detriment of the poor and needy are hypocritical and not following the true path.

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If you do not do good works then you obviously do not believe in Jesus. Gods grace is necessary for salvation. We earn grace by feeding the poor etc. If we are truly saved by grace alone. Then we don't need the 10 commandments or the bible.

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In the Gospels, the King has arrived and many passages are pertinent to Israel and the fulfillment of prophecy and the coming kingdom. The sermon on the mount is point in fact. The meek shall inherit the earth??? Not in this (church) age where wars and rumors of wars will continue until Christ returns. Consider the verse regarding the millennium where it states "as it was in the days of Noah so will it be in the coming of the son of man", where only regenerate mankind remains after the flood (Noah and his family) and unbelievers are removed. The context here is similar; believers will be going into the kingdom (millenium) and unbelievers removed.

  • Jesus makes no distinction in Matthew 25:41-46 between believers and unbelievers. – user33515 Apr 3 '18 at 2:16
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Based on only the text being studied, the conclusion can go either way. The brothers are believers, or they are the unfortunates seen amongst all humanity.

In my opinion, the answer must not be based on an atomistic view, studying only the text offered, but be holistic, must consider the whole tenor of the Scriptures.

All acts can be either :

For God or against God

Serve God or serve mammon

Be selfless or be selfish

Gather or scatter

In fact, all the first mentioned are equivalents, can be interchanged amongst themselves, as can the terms in the group of the last mentioned.

I have visited countries where the rulers put their political opponents in prison. Obviously, those who visited them were in danger of taking on the same persecution. It is no coincidence, then, that Christ viewed the helping of his brothers to mean a great service to His cause.

This view is also mentioned in the related posts linked.

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