In his final sermon to His followers before the dark hours of trial and crucifixion, Jesus Christ spoke of the great day when He would return as King and Judge. On that day, He indicated, a great division will be made:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left (Matt. 25:31-33).”
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
It is common in the Middle East to see shepherds with mixed herds of sheep and goats. Behaviorally, however, the sheep and goats are not alike. “[S]heep and goats are very different and do not graze very well together. Shepherds usually prefer the sheep, since goats get into all sorts of trouble. They climb steep, hazardous slopes and often browse while standing on tree branches. Sheep are gentle, walk slowly, and usually obey. This is not so with wandering goats.”[i]
As night approaches, the shepherd divides the sheep from the goats because they need different kinds of shelter; thus, the image of the shepherd separating the two herds would have been familiar to those listening to Jesus. They would have known about the kindly, peaceful, obedient sheep and the fractious, stubborn goats.
To the sheep at His right hand, the Lord will say: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me (Matt. 25:34-36).”
“Ye Have Done It Unto Me”
Here we find out what the final judgment is based on: Those who “inherit the kingdom” are those who serve the needs of others. Elder Marion D. Hanks expands on how the sheep differ from the goats:
“The key difference was that those who should inherit the kingdom with him had developed the habit of helping, had experienced the joy of giving and the satisfaction of serving—they had responded to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, homeless, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. Well known are his words, the words of comfort to them: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ (Matt. 25:40), while to those who were condemned to “everlasting punishment” he made the sad pronouncement, ‘Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me’(Matt. 25:45).”[ii]
Intriguingly, the “sheep” are surprised at the verdict of the judge.
“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Matt. 25:37-40).”
The “sheep” don’t fully realize that by embracing the hungry, the alienated, the sick, the prisoner, they are embracing the Christ Himself. Yet this is the essence of the Atonement: To be at one with the Savior, to embrace Him and be embraced by Him, we must “feed His lambs (John 21:5).” To be of the “fold of God,” we must, as Alma taught, “bear one another’s burdens . . . mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort (Mosiah 4:2).”
Evidently, we can be sure of a place in the Lord’s sheepfold only if we minister to the needs of others. King Benjamin taught the Nephites: “For the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants (Mosiah 4:26).”
Note that selfless service permits us to “retain a remission of our sins” and to present ourselves “guiltless before God,” the fundamental requirement for salvation. Clearly, the Lord so highly values charity to our brothers and sisters that He is willing to forgive our sins if we are charitable.
So who qualifies for the embrace of the Savior and for an inheritance in His kingdom? Those who consecrate themselves to the relief of human pain both physical and spiritual: hunger, thirst, loneliness, nakedness, illness, and imprisonment. We might all take stock: Are we among the sheep or the goats?
Service at Home
How do we go about this service? Do we need to do some heroic thing? Perhaps the simple acts of love in the home come first. Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone recalls:
“One Saturday night when I was about eleven, many of Mother’s relatives came from out of town to have dinner with us. Such visits were rare, so she spent the whole day getting the dinner ready. She prepared a pot roast and all the vegetables to go with it, mashed potatoes and gravy, salads, hot rolls, and dessert. She cooked all day, and soon the dirty dishes started stacking up.
“After dinner, everyone brought the leftover food to the kitchen, then went into the living room and began to visit. I remember going back to the kitchen, thinking, Mother works all week long, and now she’ll have to do the dishes late at night after everyone leaves. Then I thought, I’ll do the dishes for her.
“In those days, we didn’t have a dishwasher; the dishwasher was either me or someone else.
I filled up the sink and started washing. I stood there for three hours, washing every dish—and I learned that when dishes or pans are dirty, it’s best to clean them immediately, before the food hardens”
“Finally I finished drying the last dish, wiping off all the counters, and scrubbing the floor. I heard the relatives walking out onto the porch, and I heard Mother bidding them good-bye.
“The kitchen door swung open, and Mother entered. She stopped and looked around and then looked at me. I cannot describe the look on her face. I think that at first it was shock, then appreciation, and then I think it was more than that. It was a feeling of love and pride, and of something I couldn’t measure. I think you understand. There was a light in her eyes. I made the decision then that I would like to put that kind of light into people’s faces.
“Mother hugged and thanked me, and I went to bed contented and happy, knowing that she wouldn’t have to stand there doing dishes until two o’clock the next morning. I learned that serving family members is one of the most Christlike things we can do.”[iii]
For Elder Featherstone, the light in his mother’s eyes was the light of Christ shining through—a light the selfish never see nor understand. And it is a light we can each enjoy every day in the eyes of our own family and in our own homes if we are servants of Christ.
Service in the Kingdom
Another way to answer the needs of others is through welfare contributions and missionary service. President Gordon B. Hinckley describes how Latter-day Saints can contribute in these ways:
“Some years ago when drought in Africa brought hunger and death to uncounted numbers, members of the Church were invited to contribute to a great humanitarian effort to meet the needs of those terribly impoverished people. Your contributions were numerous and generous. The work has continued because there are other serious needs in many places. The outreach of this aid has become a miracle. Millions of pounds of food, medical supplies, blankets, tents, clothing, and other materials have staved off famine and desolation in various parts of the world. Wells have been dug, crops have been planted, lives have been saved. Let me give you an example.
“Neil Darlington is a chemical engineer who worked for a large industrial company in Ghana. Eventually, he retired. He and his wife were then called as a missionary couple. They were sent to Ghana. Brother Darlington says, ‘In areas of famine, disease, and social unrest, we were there as representatives of the Church, extending a helping hand to the destitute, the hungry, the distressed.’
“In small villages they drilled new wells and repaired old ones. Those of us who have fresh, clean water in abundance can scarcely appreciate the circumstances of those who are without.
“Can you picture this couple, devoted Latter-day Saint missionaries? They drill into the dry earth. Their drill reaches the water table below, and the miracle liquid comes to the surface and spills over the dry and thirsty soil. “There is rejoicing. There are tears. There is now water to drink, water with which to wash, water to grow crops. There is nothing more treasured in a dry land than water. How absolutely beautiful is water pouring from a new well.
“On one occasion, when the tribal chiefs and the elders of the village gathered to thank them, Brother Darlington asked the chief if he and Sister Darlington could sing a song for them. They looked into the eyes of the dark-skinned men and women before them and sang ‘I Am a Child of God’ as an expression of their common brotherhood.
“This one couple, through their efforts, have provided water for an estimated 190,000 people in remote villages and refugee camps. Contemplate, if you will, the miracle of this accomplishment.
“And now, literally thousands of their kind, married couples, couples who otherwise might simply have lived out their lives in largely idle pursuits, have served, and are serving, in scores of ways and in scores of places.[iv]
Those who “live out their lives in largely idle pursuits” are the goats. Those who provide water to the thirsty, who feed the hungry, who clothe the naked—they are the sheep.
“Feed My Lambs”
There is also spiritual hunger. There is also spiritual imprisonment. There are many who have deep needs that are more painful than the physical needs. The true disciple of Christ will seek opportunities to minister to those needs as well. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reflects on the spiritual pain felt by so many:
“Some time ago I read an essay referring to ‘metaphysical hunger’ in the world. The author was suggesting that the souls of men and women were dying, so to speak, from lack of spiritual nourishment in our time. That phrase, ‘metaphysical hunger,’ came back to me last month when I read the many richly deserved tributes paid to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One correspondent recalled her saying that as severe and wrenching as physical hunger was in our day—something she spent virtually her entire life trying to alleviate—nevertheless, she believed that the absence of spiritual strength, the paucity of spiritual nutrition, was an even more terrible hunger in the modern world.”[v]
It is the responsibility of each of us to “feed the lambs,” to minister to each other’s spiritual hunger and thirst. Elder M. Russell Ballard shows us how:
“Speaking to Peter, the Savior asked: ‘Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.’
“If we are obedient to the Savior’s command given to Peter, we will focus our attention on the spiritual growth and development of those for whom we are responsible. Feeding the Lord’s sheep requires each of us to awaken our interest in others. The duty to invite others to partake of the gospel feast does not rest only on the shoulders of the missionaries. That sober and significant duty belongs to each member of the Church, for ‘it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.’”[vi]
We also have a responsibility to those who are in prison. Many, for example, are in a kind of prison on the other side of the veil. Through the temple ordinances, we have it in our power to free them. Elder D. Todd Christofferson explains:
“By identifying our ancestors and performing for them the saving ordinances they could not themselves perform, we are testifying of the infinite reach of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. . . . In the scriptures, the spirits of the dead are sometimes referred to as being in darkness or in prison. Contemplating God’s glorious plan for the redemption of these, His children, the Prophet Joseph Smith penned this psalm: ‘Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
In Matthew 25, the Savior warns that those who do not qualify for the sheepfold will be surprised and pained at the judgment day. He likens them to the five foolish virgins whose “lamps are gone out” and who find it everlastingly too late to qualify for entrance to the “marriage feast (Matt. 25:10). The five wise virgins, who had taken “oil in their vessels with their lamps” were admitted.
President Spencer W. Kimball once explained that the oil in the vessels is the “rare oil of service . . . accumulated through visits to the sick, through lending a helping hand.”[viii] The five wise virgins represent those who consistently seek out opportunities to extend charity to others. By contrast, the five foolish virgins with no reserve of oil in their lamps represent those who bypassed such opportunities.
The Parable of the Talents
In the Parable of the Talents, the Savior also compares the inheritors of his kingdom to the servant who adds upon his lord’s wealth:
“He that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord (Matt. 25:20-21).”
The “talents” of the parable stand for the means and opportunities which God grants us to be of service to others in His kingdom. God is gratified when we make use of these opportunities to give loving service. Note that the accumulated wealth does not belong to the servant, but to the Lord. The Savior’s commandment is this: “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth (Matt. 25:20-21)” As we turn our hearts with charity to others, as we increase in our capacity to serve, as we forget ourselves in living our lives for others, we become more like the Savior.
And as we do so, we can look forward to the day when He extends His right hand to us and welcomes us into His kingdom. That will be the great moment of Atonement, for we will be counted among the flock he carries close to His heart:
[i] Homer S. Ellsworth, “Thoughts on the Good Shepherd,” Ensign, Dec 1985, 62
[ii] Marion D. Hanks, “The Royal Law,” Ensign, May 1992, 9
[iii] Rebecca M. Taylor and Vaughn J. Featherstone, “Friend to Friend,” Friend, Aug 1994, 6
[iv] Gordon B. Hinckley, “‘I Was an Hungred, and Ye Gave Me Meat’,” Ensign, May 2004, 58
[v] Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘He Hath Filled the Hungry with Good Things’,” Ensign, Nov 1997, 64
[vi] M. Russell Ballard, “Feasting at the Lord’s Table,” Ensign, May 1996, 80
[vii] D. Todd Christofferson, “The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus,” Ensign, Nov 2000, 9.
[viii] Spencer W. Kimball, “Gospel’s Rare Oils Difficult to Obtain ‘at Midnight,’ ” Church News, May 13, 1995, 14