Mother Teresa’s message that Jesus comes to us in the face of the poor and needy whoever they are, is probably the only approach to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that most of us have ever heard. Perhaps it is your understanding of what Jesus was saying in that parable. But her understanding of what Jesus was saying is almost certainly incorrect.
Mother Teresa’s approach to Matthew 25:31-46 is a relatively late development, as show in the historical survey in Sherman Gray’s dissertation The Least of My Brothers. As argued by C.E.B. Cranfield, George Ladd, J. Ramsey Michaels, R.T. France, Donald Carson, Craig Blomberg, and others, Jesus originally told this parable to declare that the world will be judged based on how they have treated his followers (“my brothers/sisters”), not the poor or rejected as a whole. Whatever unbelievers have done to Jesus’ followers, says Jesus, they have done to him. As Richard Wurmbrand has suggested, an unbeliever in a Chinese prison who feeds his/her Christian cellmate would appear to qualify as a theoretical example.
A compelling real-life example of what Jesus means about judging the nations by how they have treated “the least of these my brothers” happened this past Christmas Eve, where Muslims in Mosul, Iraq helped Christians re-open their burned out church for Christmas Eve mass (see https://www.christiantoday.com/article/muslims.helped.mosuls.christians.re.open.church.for.midnight.mass/122821.htm). I firmly reject any notion of salvation by works, nor am I by any means a universalist, but whatever Jesus meant, sounds a lot like what these Muslims did to the least of Jesus’ brethren.
And certainly all of us have seen a long line of panhandlers and abusive needy people where we could say, if that’s the face of Jesus, then atheism begins to look extremely attractive. No, not every poor person is the face of Jesus. I believe that Jesus never intended his words to be understood that way. Could it be that God now expects us to understand it that way? Could be, but I doubt it, unless you have a pipeline to Jesus that tells you otherwise. But I believe that such pipelines are extremely rare, and I doubt that either you or Mother Teresa has been given the authority from Jesus to issue such a revelation, as much as I believe her to have been a saint in the non-technical sense of the word.
But if I am wrong, think about the implications of Jesus’ words about the “least of these” to the subject of abortion. Who can make a greater claim to be among “the least of these” than the unborn child? And if what you have done to the least of these, you have done to Jesus, the implications are frightening for anyone who would take the life of the unborn. But while I am firmly pro-life, and would find this line of interpretation to be extremely convenient, I must reluctantly look elsewhere for my Biblical basis for opposing abortion.
Now that I’ve taken away the Parable of the Sheep and Goats as our Biblical basis for caring for those in need, let me replace it with another parable that provides a better Biblical basis for such care: the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-42). Granted, it does not identify the faces of those in need with the face of Jesus, but that was never Jesus’ intention, anyway.
But even the Good Samaritan pushes the envelope with its broad definition of “neighbor” in Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Yes, our neighbor includes the panhandler. Yes, it includes the terrorist. It does not obligate us to give the terrorist safe haven from being caught or to help them achieve their terror objectives. But how we can love our neighbor without giving needless aid and comfort to those who wish to destroy us is a question for which it is worth finding some answers.
Is the refugee the face of Jesus? To be honest, the answer is no. But is the refugee my neighbor? The answer is inescapably yes. That will give us sufficient Biblical warrant to love that neighbor as we love ourselves. Let that inform our political debate over immigration, as we seek to find the right way to treat our neighbors. But we do Jesus no favors by seeing his face where he never claimed it was.
The Good Samaritan ends up making life messier for us than the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. If our neighbor includes the hated Samaritan, then it also includes Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and anyone else whom you may hate with a passion. Loving our enemies as if they were my neighbors is not a teaching I would make up if I was inventing my own Jesus who makes no demands on me.
One unfortunate effect of Mother Teresa’s Jesus is that this Jesus ends up being bad news rather than Good News. Mother Teresa unwittingly preached salvation by works loud and clear when she identified her ethic of seeing the face of Jesus in all who are poor and needy as “the Gospel.” If we really believe that, if that’s the Good News, then we are all lost. Who in the entire world does that very effectively? Mother Teresa herself probably did that better than anyone, but if that’s the way to God, if that’s the penance we must do to save ourselves from sin, reaching that goal looks pretty hopeless to me.
What Jesus was really saying to his audience in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is echoed in Matthew 10:40-42, where Jesus says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the One who sent me.” He applies this principle to anyone who welcomes a prophet or a righteous person: they will receive the same reward as the prophet or righteous person. And then he says, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones (there’s those words again!) because he/she is a disciple, truly, I tell you, will by no means lose their reward.”
Jesus’ earliest listeners do not yet know about his plans to save non-Jews. Jesus reassures them in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that anyone who welcomes them because they are followers of Jesus is welcoming him. And welcoming Jesus is serious business. Failing to do so carries with it an eternal price. Go back and read what happens to the goats.