Jesus notes very basic, specific and tangible needs as He points our focus to those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers (or “homeless” in The Message paraphrase), naked, sick and imprisoned. Could these also point to deeper needs of a person and call us to offer care, concern, and help for the whole person?
“Hungry” can represent physical needs. Hunger pains in our body create a realization of need. These are the needs a person can feel and often articulate. These are sometimes the needs more readily met, but can sometimes be short-term, aiding in survival today, unless we also look at long-term solutions for meeting physical needs. Those solutions can involve aiding the person in need to develop skills to improve his situation, advocating for changes in what the community has to offer, defending the needy from exploitation, and/or working for changes in social or governmental policies that keep the needs from being met.
“Thirsty” can symbolize spiritual needs, those “real needs” that have been designed into us by our Creator. Just as our bodies need water to survive, whether one knows he’s dehydrated or not, our souls need the Lord to be satisfied thoroughly.
“Stranger” can point to social needs. We were created for community and have an innate longing for acceptance and a desire to belong. The Amplified Bible renders Matthew 25:35 as “…I was a stranger and you brought Me together with yourselves and welcomed and entertained and lodged Me.” The verse suggests seeing to housing as well as to the hospitality of genuine fellowship.
“Naked” can suggest images of being defenseless or with emotional needs. An emotionally unclothed person can be without a healthy covering of coping or interpersonal skills. As we draw from the care and comfort of the Lord for our needs, He works through us to clothe others with His care and comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
“Sick,” in the original Greek of this verse, indicated a sickness needing long-term care. All of us must, at some point, face our eternal need for rescue from our sinful nature. (This is not to equate sickness with sin, but is only being used as a metaphor.) Our Savior visited us in a way that drew us to accept His cure for our sin and He has given us the ministry of visiting with others, so they can see Him through us and find His healing mercy for their sins as well.
“Imprisoned” can symbolize lifestyle needs, especially when any of us become bound by life-controlling problems. Whether a person is in bondage to a behavior, a substance or a relationship, true freedom comes through Christ. Today, one way He visits those in such “prisons” is through us, His Body. Our coming alongside others through the love of Christ allows those in bondage to see His way out and have a supportive friend along the path toward freedom when they choose that journey.
This and many other scriptures make it very clear that every believer has a call to work with the poor in some way. Consider Christ’s account of the Samaritan who helped the man who had need. “Like the Savior, the Samaritan brought himself near, made himself a neighbor, leapt over the walls between familiar and unfamiliar, acting like family in order to create a new family, opening the door to bring inside the stranger in need” (Thigpen).
“But if there are any poor people in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited … Give freely without begrudging it, and the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some among you who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share your resources freely with the poor …”
–Deuteronomy 15:7-11 NLT