You're Probably Missing Out on a lot of Joy, Here's How:

Today, we’re going to look at a passage out of the 25th book of Matthew, in which Jesus instructs us on who we ought to serve and how. When we’re reading this passage, let’s do a few things together:

1. Read Jesus’ words as if he were speaking directly to you.

Pretend as if you’re standing right before Jesus and he tells you, “(name), I want you to really hear what I’m about to say because it is meant specifically for you.

2. Don’t jump ahead mentally.

Chances are, you know what Jesus’ point is in the story. Let’s try to go on this journey together and not jump immediately to Jesus’ point. It’s important we engage the process, so try intentionally think through the different points we’ll address.

3. Try to take Jesus’ words as literally as you possibly can.

Now, this isn’t a prescription for how to read the Bible. Jesus often told stories that weren’t literal events, and he often used hyperbole to drive home a point. But, for this passage, let’s try to take his words as literally as possible.

I think if we do these three things, we’ll experience something pretty cool today.

Let’s get started.

31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 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, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
— Matthew 25:31-36, ESV

Those whom the Son of Man (Jesus) places on his right and thus invites into his kingdom are those who

-     fed him
-     quenched his thirst
-     welcomed him
-     clothed him
-     visited him in his sickness
-     and visited him in prison.

We all want to be in the kingdom of God, and so we should, as Jesus tells us, feed him, give him something to drink, and on and on. Remember, we are trying to receive these words as if Jesus were speaking directly to us, and we’re trying to understand them literally, so how do we do these things? The answer is that we are two millennia removed from the life of Jesus of Nazareth and thus have no chance to serve him in any these ways. This is, effectively, impossible (remember rule 2, don’t jump ahead mentally, pretend you’re ignorant to the conclusion of the teaching). So, we’re stuck.

The people in Jesus’ narrative were just as confused as our pretend ignorant selves. He continues,

37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
— v. 37-40

Jesus tells his confused audience the point he was trying to make, mainly, when you serve others, you’re serving him (you can stop pretending now, we’ve arrived at the point). Jesus’ instructions were that when you give a hungry person food, you’re giving Jesus food. When you give a thirsty person a drink, you’re giving Jesus a drink.

But, we’ve always known this, right? This isn’t a new revelation. The problem is, I think we often neglect to take Jesus’ words as literally as he’ll allow us. We have effectively translated the last verse from “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” to “when you serve people, it’s as if you’re serving God. It may seem subtle, but practically, it makes a huge difference. Think about it. If you were to encounter the risen Jesus and he was hungry, you wouldn’t even think twice about feeding him, would you? Of course, you wouldn’t! You’d jump at the opportunity, and rightfully so. You wouldn’t need anyone else to know you were serving Jesus or if he would appreciate the food you were giving him, you’d just want to do it. You would find a deep and abounding joy in serving the risen Jesus. You’d be glowing with satisfaction and enjoyment. However, when it comes to people, we often have qualifiers we attach to serving them (even if we don’t say them aloud):

What if they don’t appreciate what I’m giving them?

Visiting them wouldn’t make a difference…

Someone else will help them out

I’m really not in a position to help

We wouldn’t say these to Jesus, so where’s the disconnect? The disconnect is in the way in which we’ve read this passage. We’ve failed to take Jesus’ words as literally as possible and thus have given ourselves a pass. In effectively translating his words to “It’d be as if you were serving me,” we’ve allowed ourselves to miss out on this command from Jesus and thus his invitation into the Kingdom.

The Reformer, Martin Luther, spoke on this very topic in a sermon he gave toward the end of his life.

The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give way. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time should have been glad to give her a hand. There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been able to help the baby! I would have washed his linen! How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at the time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem! Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.
— Martin Luther

It’s hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of conviction when hearing these words, right? That was Luther’s point. Any of us, knowing we were dealing with Jesus’ mom, would have done anything to help her. But today, we don’t believe we are dealing with Jesus. We think we’re simply dealing with people. Lest we forget, however, that our Savior Jesus feels our pain (and also the pain of the people whom he calls us to serve) let the prophet Isaiah and his suffering servant prophecy remind us:

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
— Isaiah 53:4-5, ESV

If Jesus felt and died for our pain, then doesn’t it follow that when we serve people we aren’t merely serving them for God, but that we are actually serving God? Of course, there is a mysterious spiritual component at work here, because we would not want to argue that any human was literally God, but Jesus was pretty clear that it wasn’t as if we were serving God, but that we were, in fact, serving God.

Finally, let’s look at how Jesus wraps this teaching up (and for those of us that thought Martin Luther a little harsh, he clearly derived his thoughts on the matter from Jesus)

41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 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.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
— Matthew 25:41-46

When we choose - for no good reason - to not serve people, we are choosing to not serve God. We Christ followers have been called into a life of servitude. That is the new life God has given us; one in which we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and serve God. We do this when we serve people.

Our hearts are consumed with many things that might distract us from the call God has placed on our lives, and these distractions make our spiritual lives quite difficult. Excuses are not hard to come by when thinking about if we ought to serve someone. However, if we would think about the joy we would feel by serving the risen Jesus, and try to remind ourselves that it is he we are serving when we serve people, we might find more joy on this earth than we ever thought we could experience.

This week, let’s all commit to serving Jesus whether he is a stranger in need of a coat or a meal, or even a man spending time behind bars. Let’s go out of our way and experience the joy he has set before us.

How are you going to serve Jesus today?