In Matthew 25, shortly before the Passover and His crucifixion, Jesus visits the temple, where He teaches curious listeners and responds to their questions. He gives much of His lecture in parables, stories that help His audience understand the more complex elements of His discourse.
Jesus’s final lesson, however, is not phrased as a parable but as a literal event. In verses 31-46, Jesus describes His return in glory, at which time He will judge all humanity. In His description of this event, the only distinction Christ makes between the righteous and the unrighteous is whether they cared for the marginalized within their communities. The souls invited into the kingdom of God, Jesus says, are those who feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, and show hospitality to strangers.
Jesus further states that when anyone cares for the “least of these,” he or she is caring for Christ Himself. Such acts are not simple charity; they are a helping hand extended to the God’s self-identification with the needy. With this assertion, Jesus mandates His Church to reach out to the hurting and broken members of society.
In 2020, the Christian research firm Barna Group published data showing that one in four adults in the U.S. believes that the church should lead the way in solving community problems. Further, one in three practicing Christians stated he or she looks to the church for help in crises. Sadly, only seven percent of non-Christians actually sees the church as a primary source of community assistance, responding that they see the government or individual citizens as foremost providers of aid.
Fortunately, the Church is uniquely poised to change that perception. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, society’s need for outreach is massive. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, approximately 20 million in the U.S. are living in households that didn’t get enough to eat, and 11.4 million adults are behind on rent payments. From June 23 – July 5, 2021, one in seven adults with children said they didn’t have enough food for their families, with 77 percent of those surveyed saying that they couldn’t afford it. Whether providing financial assistance, establishing interim lodging, or stocking a free food bank, the local church and its members can and must provide solutions to societal problems.
While community outreach is primarily focused on providing for physical needs, it can also create a path to fulfilling humanity’s greatest spiritual need: a relationship with Jesus Christ. In his book Loving Your Community, author Stephen Viars emphasizes the necessity of keeping evangelism at the center of church outreach.
“Church history is filled with examples of people who ignored the needs of their community and missed opportunities to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ,” Viars writes. “At the same time, others launched head-on to meet social needs but lost the purpose of proclaiming Christ as their foundational focus. I am absolutely convinced that both the purity and efficacy of the gospel is at stake.”
Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 remain relevant today. Christ still calls the Church to be the light of the world, proclaiming freedom through faith in Him to ends of the earth. By engaging in outreach evangelism, the body of Christ can bring God’s love into every community, fulfilling the prophetic proclamation in Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (ESV).