Sunday School Lessons

Who Do You Want to Help?

In Matthew 25:36, Jesus talks about being visited in prison (among other things).  He later explains in this teaching that those who are going to be blessed did so vicariously, by visiting others in prison (more on that in the preceding articles).

In fact, several guys who I know (from a Tuesday evening men’s group) help in a prison ministry, going to where convicted criminals live.  (And, I guess that makes sense, since these incarcerated individuals can’t come to them!)  Now, this particular passage might be talking about visiting those who are imprisoned for their faith.  That isn’t common in my country, but there are definitely places in this world where one’s professed faith is a valid reason for getting locked up.  In those cases, not only would one have to go to a prison in order to see a fellow Christian who is locked up, but where faith in Jesus is persecuted, just showing up might identify oneself as another Christian, putting the visitor at risk of being jailed as well.

Let’s take another look at verse 40:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:40 NIV

Note that there’s a reference to “…the least of these…”  Jesus talked about the last being first and vice versa (see Matthew 19:30, for instance), and I think that we need to understand that serving others isn’t about seeking out those who are already pretty well off, or getting on the right ministry team just to impress someone who is influential or popular.  In fact, I’m reminded of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:43-48, about loving our enemies.

Here’s how I see things:

  • If we serve those who have already served us, that’s reciprocity (i.e., payback or fairness).
  • If we serve those who will give us something in return, that’s business (i.e., a transaction).
  • If we serve those who cannot repay us, that’s being like Jesus (i.e., the goal of those of us who follow Him).

I also don’t see any moral or cultural qualifications required by those who were served.  It’s not about whether or not people in need have earned the right to be helped, or whether they previously did something for us that we must pay back.  While there might be some indication that they are part of the family of God (which, by the way, is open to everyone), their primary distinction appears to be that they were in need.  They were hungry, thirsty, etc.

One day, when I was down by the children’s section of our congregation’s building, I saw a guy come in with all kinds of piercings and a spiked haircut.  (I think that he probably also had tattoos and a custom hair color, but it was a while ago.)  While I don’t remember if I got the chance, I wanted to go up to him and let him know that he was more than welcome here, just the way he was.  When I saw him again on a future Sunday morning, he had taken out a lot of the jewelry and toned down his hair, and I felt kind of bad that he (apparently) felt like he had to change for others.

Side note: When I shared this story as part of as a Sunday School lesson, there were some other explanations proposed for the change in this guy’s appearance: perhaps he felt that he no longer had to dress or look in an extreme way to make friends (i.e., being accepted for who he was, regardless of his appearance), or maybe he had associated elements of his appearance with some parts of his life that he was ready to leave behind.  I appreciate the insight that God imparts to others, since I had not thought about these alternative explanations.

I don’t know for sure why this guy came back, but I still hope that he knew that he was loved and welcomed by the body of Christ, whether or not he had yet become a part of that family.

Jesus – who lived far better than me – modeled what it meant to serve those out on the fringes of a culture, whether they look different, think differently, or live somewhere different (including those who don’t have a place to stay at all).

In addition, notice that those who served others here (and, by doing so, served Jesus) didn’t just give money, or form a committee, or get their church to start a ministry.  Of course those things can be a means to serving others, and I’m not dismissing them as a part of the solution.  However, there are times when we see a need and we must step up and help directly.  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with supporting others who are serving.  After all, that helps to broaden our reach by helping people whose needs we might not be able to meet ourselves.  Still, it seems like we shouldn’t limit ourselves to helping other people serve: sometimes, I believe, we should be the ones doing the work, too.

So, when you talk with God, don’t just offer him a list of people who you like as “options” from which He can choose for you to serve them.  Think about the “other” people: those who you don’t like, who can’t pay you back, who are difficult to serve, or maybe who you haven’t met, yet.  Service in Jesus’ name isn’t just for our friends, after all.

From Sunday School lesson prepared for December 18, 2022


  • The Lookout, December 18, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
  • Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
  • The College Press NIV Commentary – Matthew, by Larry Chouinard, pages 443-447.  © 1997 College Press Publishing Co.

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