A few years back, I had the rare opportunity to travel to Thailand. One afternoon, my group spent time on the streets of Bangkok, where it didn’t take long to encounter many people, some as young as three years old, clutching cups into which passersby could drop their change.
Continuing our walk, we encountered the unthinkable. On the sidewalk, in the heat of the day, lay a solitary man. He had lost both his arms and legs and was positioned on his stomach, neck straining up and face lifted, meeting the eyes of anyone who dared look at him as they walked by. Next to him sat a cup.
I’m sure most would respond by emptying their pockets, but I’m almost certain I didn’t leave him anything (though, thankfully, my companions did). His situation seemed so utterly devoid of hope that it felt like a mockery to act as if I had anything to offer this man. So I passed him, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, my mind haunted by a question: How can my paltry gift—or even a large one—make even a tiny difference in such a person’s life?
Equally haunting is Matthew’s description of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats—the Christ-followers from those who chose a different path. In this narrative, the single determining factor in these people’s eternal destiny involves their response to those with needs.
When the sheep encountered a hungry or thirsty person, they offered food or water. For a homeless person, the sheep provided a place to stay. When they saw someone shivering because of cold weather, they provided warm clothing. When they knew someone was sick, or even in jail, they went to the trouble of visiting that person.
The goats had the very same opportunities as the sheep, but their responses were completely different. Where the sheep responded with generosity, the goats did not.
Scripture doesn’t give the reason for the goats’ failure to act. Maybe they were too busy, or didn’t really notice the needs around them. Perhaps they were inclined to hold tightly to their possessions, and their time. Possibly, they were afraid they themselves might become ill if they visited a sick friend. Perhaps they were worried about what others would think if they visited a prisoner. I guess it’s even possible that they simply didn’t care.
What’s always interested me, though, is the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats were aware that they were serving (or overlooking) Christ when they chose whether or not to provide for those in need. When Jesus tells them about how they did (or didn’t) care for Him, the sheep and the goats both reply by saying, in essence, “But when? When was it that we did (or didn’t do) these things?”
For some reason, this lack of complete understanding in the moment of decision brings something like relief. Their incomplete awareness in their moments of decision tells me that I need not rely so heavily on my own human (and therefore limited) perspective. I simply cannot know, with certainty, just whom it is that I might be caring for.
Their story also reminds me that my calling is less about understanding all the ramifications of serving, and more about simply responding to the needs I encounter. Understanding the “bigger picture” isn’t a prerequisite to meaningful generosity.
Finally—and this idea brings me both comfort and motivation--
my provision for the needs of others doesn’t have to “fix” their circumstances in order to “count” in Christ’s eyes. After all, Jesus doesn’t thank the sheep for healing His sickness; He simply acknowledges that they offered the simple gift of companionship. Their invitation to heaven isn’t based on their ability to eradicate all hunger, thirst, or poverty, nor does Christ affirm them for delivering anyone from jail or healing sickness; He simply acknowledges the sheep’s willingness to offer ordinary, everyday gifts: a cup of water, a satisfying meal, adequate clothing, simple companionship.
His invitation to open my hands to others’ needs is as simple as it sounds, even if it seems to make only the tiniest difference in that moment.