Acton Commentary

The Sheep and the Goats: Work and Service to Others


In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46), Jesus differentiates between those who have done good to others and those who have not. The king, taking the place of Christ in the parable, says that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Whatever good was done was counted as being done to the king, and whatever bad was done was counted the same way. And on this basis the king separates the righteous sheep and the unrighteous goats. The goats “go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” It is natural to think that the good the sheep do to others (“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”) refers to special acts of kindness, things that are only done occasionally and usually within a charitable context.

Lester DeKoster, in his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, provides a refreshing understanding of this parable. He writes that the good Jesus refers to includes these special acts of charity, but also refers to the service we do every day within the context of work. Consider that “God himself, hungering in the hungry, is served by all those who work in agriculture, wholesale or retail foods, kitchens or restaurants, food transportation or the mass production of food items, manufacturing of implements used in agriculture or in any of the countless food-related industries, innumerable support services and enterprises that together make food production and distribution possible.” The same goes for those who thirst, or who need clothing or shelter. “To work is to love—both God and neighbor!” concludes DeKoster.

One reflexive response to this claim is to argue that when we do work for money, when we profit from our labor, we are really serving ourselves and not others. Or we might say that our service to others is merely instrumental to our real selfish purposes. But from the context of Jesus’ parable it’s not clear at all that the sheep explicitly have in mind the idea that they were serving God through their service of others, or that all of what they did for others was simply voluntary and without monetary compensation. They even have to ask the king, “Lord, when did we do these things for you?”

The concept of work being at once remunerative and service-oriented is not totally foreign to us. We tend to think, at least generally, of those in “public service” as working for the good of others even though they receive a paycheck. The same typically goes for doctors and teachers, as well as for a host of other jobs. But if it is the case that these kinds of professionals can legitimately be said to serve others (even though they are paid to do so), why is not the same true for the entrepreneur, the waitress, the garbageman, the farmer, the babysitter, or the factory worker? The fact that our work is “salable,” as DeKoster puts it, is one important piece of evidence that what we are doing is actually of use to someone; enough use, in fact, for them to compensate us for it.

This perspective on work and service as understood in the parable of the sheep and the goats also provides us with other norms for judging whether our work is true service or not. One measure, as we have said, is whether someone finds our work to be valuable enough to pay us for doing it. But given the corruption of human nature, people will pay us to do all kinds of things that are not good for them (or for us). So beyond mere “salability” of our work we must judge it by its orientation and effects. Does our work actually help others? Is it for their good that this work is done? Does it foster independence or dependence? Does it humanize or dehumanize? Does it feed addiction or satisfy legitimate appetite? By necessity, then, things that are inherently harmful, such as the distribution of illegal drugs, pornography, or abortion, are ruled out of bounds. But there are innumerable ways that otherwise valid service or work can be undermined by human sinfulness.

Even so, whether it is giving someone something to eat or drink, something to wear or somewhere to live, or any of the other myriad ways we serve one another in daily life, all legitimate forms of serving others, whether paid in wages or not, are valid ways to serve Christ. The key to this perspective, writes DeKoster, is to understand that our daily work is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”