In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a story – the very last story, according to Matthew, that Jesus ever told – about Judgment Day, when the King calls each of us before him so that he can make a final assessment of how we lived our lives. Unlike the popular images we have of Saint Peter standing at the gates of Heaven, clicking his Bic and holding his clipboard, asking us what we have done to deserve entrance, the King in this story does not ask us for an accounting – in part because the King already knows us through and through, and knows already everything we have ever done.
But there’s another reason he doesn’t ask us to help him make the final assessment, and that’s because he knows that we don’t always recognize the good we have done when we’ve done it, nor do we always recognize the good we have failed to do.
Jesus says that some people enter the kingdom of heaven, and some do not, but none of them beforehand know for sure. Some of them, in their lifetimes, had fed the hungry, and some did not; some gave a cup of cold water to the thirsty, and some withheld it; some gave the shirt off their back to the unclothed, and some turned their backs on them. None of them, however, knew at the time that the stakes were so high. On Judgment Day, they all ask the same question: when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked or lonely? We didn’t know that was you.” But the King says, “Inasmuch as you did or did not do it to the least among you, you did or did not do it unto me.”
God judges us according to how we act in those circumstances when it’s not altogether clear that God is around, when the stakes do not seem high – when, by all appearances, the day is like every other day that has come before it, and the people like all the rest.
All of which means that you can go about your business each day, trying your best to show mercy to everyone, knowing that it just may be that one of them will be Jesus in disguise. Or, you can try your best to show mercy to everyone because, in the end, everyone of them is Christ. The first approach is to love for the sake of a reward; the latter is to love for Christ’s sake.
You never know when he’ll show up. Then again, you really do.