It had been a difficult few days. A loved one was drowning in pain and I didn’t know how to help. So I put on my tennis shoes and headed outside. Walking helps me focus my thoughts, and it’s my favorite time to listen to Scripture.
I picked up where I’d left off that morning in Matthew 25, where Jesus talks about the final judgment. He describes how he’ll separate the righteous (whom he calls sheep) from the others (whom he calls goats). He’ll praise the sheep for how they served him by serving others. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” he says (25:40).
How to Help
This story is something I’ve heard and considered many times. But as I was walking up a particularly steep hill just outside my neighborhood, I noticed a pattern I hadn’t seen before in the specific behaviors Jesus identifies in verses 35–36:
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
I was sick and you visited me,
I was in prison and you came to me.
Here, Jesus identifies six scenarios in which we’re faced with a problem. In all but two of those, he implies that loving others involves fixing the problem:
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Welcome the stranger
- Clothe the naked
Those are all very practical, tangible, and important ways we can serve others. They generally require little from us, and we tend to feel good when we help in these ways. But, what about the last two scenarios? I stopped partway up the hill to rewind my audio and listen again.
No Quick Fix
For the sick and imprisoned, Jesus doesn’t suggest we should seek to heal them or get them out of jail, which might be direct ways to address those problems. Of course, granting healing or release from prison is likely not within our power. But Jesus shows that even if we can’t directly solve the problem, we can still serve the person.
Even if we can’t directly solve the problem, we can still serve the person. We’re told to visit them.
We’re told to visit them, look after them, or take care of them, depending on the translation. All three of these definitions are actually contained within the context of the original language. The Greek word is episkeptomai and refers to visiting someone, assessing their wellbeing, and meeting their needs. This word is used 11 times in the New Testament.
Of those mentions, I was surprised to find that nearly half refer to something God does for us. For example, in Hebrews 2:6 we read, “It has been testified somewhere, ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for [episkeptomai] him?’” And Luke 1:68 says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited [episkeptomai] and redeemed his people.”
This is something the Lord does for us and then invites us to do for others. It’s something we can do out of love for and worship of our God because he first loved us.
If we’re honest, visiting the sick and imprisoned and looking after them can be harder than trying to fix one of the other scenarios mentioned. It takes more of our time and attention, and it might be complicated and inconvenient. No wonder the sick and imprisoned tend to be lonely.
And yet this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do—to visit with them, spend time with them, and even get to know their pain. It’s going deeper than the stereotypical quick fix to understand their needs and, if appropriate, to find ways to address them. It’s putting the listening before the doing.
I experienced the benefits of visiting firsthand when a member of our family faced a difficult mental health challenge that no amount of food, drink, or clothing could cure. Initially, it seemed as if most people might be avoiding us, perhaps not knowing how to help. But then one person stopped by our house at a pivotal moment.
“I brought you some cookies,” she began, stammering a bit, as if not knowing how to proceed. But, shored up by the Holy Spirit, she looked deep in my tear-filled eyes and then enveloped me in the embrace of episkeptomai. She listened while I poured out my worries and fears, joining me in my pain. Her compassionate presence routinely helped recharge my weary soul over the following weeks and months, all the while pointing me toward Jesus, the ultimate Healer.
Her compassionate presence routinely helped recharge my weary soul while pointing me toward Jesus, the ultimate Healer.
God sent his Son to visit us, to intimately know our pain and meet our ultimate need. And he invites us into some of the most influential, kingdom-focused work we can do—to episkeptomai one another.
Visiting others is not easy and it’s definitely not quick. But it is an opportunity to wrap “the least of these” in God’s love when illness or imprisonment threaten isolation. When we serve others by visiting them, we may not be able to fix all their problems, but we can share the love of our Savior.