Who you are is how you lead is a statement of character. Notice it says, “who you are,” not what you do is how you lead or what you know is how you lead, but who you are is how you lead.
As a Christ-centered leader, your behavior reflects your character. It is in direct response to God’s love as experienced in and through Jesus. It is not a result of your working harder or learning more, although both values are good for leaders. It is a result of who you are as a human being in relationship to God and to the people around you, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers, and even enemies. Who you are is seen in the fruit you produce, which is your character as a person and as a leader.
Let us again use our practice of “Read, Reflect, Respond, and Return” as a pattern for examining another aspect of character in the scripture. This parable will be helpful in understanding “who you are is how you lead.”
Read Matthew 25:31-46
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.”
This parable uses judgment as a tool to instruct what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a “daughter or son” of God. It is the last formal teaching that Jesus gives in Matthew’s gospel. It is based upon the need for righteousness and the works of mercy, especially toward the weak and marginalized, that grow out of that righteousness.
With that in mind, there are several layers to understanding this parable. The first is the good news according to Matthew. “God sent Jesus to teach us how to live before God.” For Matthew, righteousness and holiness are characteristics of children of God.
Although Matthew says it differently from John, it is the same perspective of “being born from above.” Holiness and righteousness are seen in our relationships with God and with others. So, for Matthew, you are a child of God and God sent Jesus to teach you how to live as a child of God. Hang on to that because this parable reveals the depth of holiness and righteousness of being God’s son and daughter.
Reflection of Reality
The second layer is a parable. Parables are reflections of reality as opposed to mirrors of morality. Said another way, this parable does not tell us what we should be doing. It reflects back to us what we are doing.
I have often heard this scripture quoted to leverage people to care for others, to raise money, or, at its worst, to shame people into acts of care and compassion. This parable is not a moral teaching.
All the acts of care and compassion are good and needed, but the point of the parable is not “you should be doing these things.” The parable actually reflects back what you are doing. It reflects reality. When you are doing acts of care and compassion for anyone, but especially for “the least of these” you are showing care and compassion to Jesus.
Who You Are as a Jesus Follower
Caring for “the least of these” is who you are as a follower of Jesus, a human being bearing the image of one of God’s children. Caring for “the least of these” is who you are as a child of God. It is not a calculated action of doing what you should be doing.
The difference is subtle but significant. You are caring for others because that is who you are, or you are caring for others out of calculated action to do good. Do you see the difference?
That brings us to the third layer of the parable, judgment. In light of becoming who God created you to be and in the light of the reality of your living as one of God’s children, your actions reveal who you are. Judgment is experienced in the reflection of reality. It simply brings out what is already present.
Notice the criterion of judgment is not a confession of faith in Jesus. Nothing is said of grace, justification, or forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether or not you have acted with loving care for people around you, especially those in great need. Your care and compassion are not acts of “extra credit” but are the basis of who you are as a follower of Jesus, a child of God, and a person of loving others as God in Christ has loved you.
Responding to Jesus
Let’s look at this in another way. In the parable, when people respond, they are responding to Jesus. Yet both groups are surprised. Those who provided food, drink, clothing, shelter, and visited the sick and imprisoned respond entirely on who they are. It is no big deal. It is part of their living in relationship to God and to others. They are surprised to learn that there was a deeper dimension to their acts of human compassion. Without knowing it, they are responding to Jesus.
Those who plan and direct their response of providing food, drink, clothing, shelter, and visiting the sick and imprisoned have worked intentionally to respond to human needs. They have done good work. They are surprised to learn that their good work has not brought them the results they were planning to receive. Their acts of care and compassion are calculated. Even though they have worked to respond to human need, they have missed the point of God’s love thus missing the deeper dimensions of what it means to be a child of God. Because of their focus on themselves, they have missed Jesus.
What’s the Difference?
Both groups respond to human need. Both respond out of who they are. The difference is, one group responds out of being children of God, living in holiness and righteousness in relationship to others. The other group responds to their need to care for others. Their need grows out of satisfying themselves as opposed to satisfying God. Because it feels good to help others it must be what God wants them to do.
Both groups are surprised. One group is living life as they have been created to live, in relationship with others whether they need help or not. The other group is living a life of self-satisfaction and does not understand that their hard work and care for others is a sign of their disconnectedness with others.
And there is the judgment, the reflection of reality, of the parable. So, to be clear, it is not the doing of good things that brings holiness or righteousness to a person. It is the very nature of the person that reflects God’s holiness and righteousness.
It is a tough parable. It reveals who you are and why you lead the way you do. It is a parable of character.
It is interesting to note that this is a parable of sheep and goats and not sheep and wolves. Jesus is not choosing between the obviously bad and the obviously good. There is no division here between the opponents of the gospel and the believers in it. The judgment is distinguishing among all who profess to be followers of Jesus and who claim to be members of the family of God. The painful part of this parable is the revelation of the true nature of those who profess to be followers of Jesus.
For Matthew, the ultimate mark of an authentic follower of Jesus is not a creed, biblical knowledge, or adherence to the rules. The mark of an authentic follower of Jesus is seen and revealed in the nature of the person who responds out of love to human need. The practical demonstration of love is the ultimate proof.
Jesus Surprises Us
Notice that Jesus does not ask anyone to present his or her case or to argue their cause. He does not ask any questions or request any evidence. He simply extends an invitation, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom…” Then he explains the basis of his choice. He simply says that when they had the opportunity to help, they did. Nothing more is required. Then surprise! Jesus identifies himself with those being helped. “If you help them, you are really helping me,” he says.
They have been responding to the needs of those around them. They keep no records; they expect no praise. They find joy in being children of God. They are unaware they are doing anything unusual.
The Big Suprise
The major surprise comes when Jesus says to those who have missed the point, “if you ignore them, you are ignoring me.” These people know that God is interested in the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and they are all ready for God. They have already made long mental lists of the times they have ministered to those in need. They can recall detailed descriptions of what has been done and the sums of money given. They have put in long hours doing the good work they have decided needs to be done. To these self-justifying persons Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
They are even more surprised than the sheep. They are depending upon their good deeds for acceptance. Their response is so calculated that they ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” They are honest when they ask in astonishment, “Lord, when did we see you…and not…?”
Your character is revealed in the light of God’s love. God’s judgment comes when you least expect it. It comes when you are unaware and off guard. It is then that you truly reveal yourself. The test comes, not in your remembered actions, but in your unconscious reactions, instinctive, and unplanned responses. Who you are is how you lead.
Give God thanks for the people you met today.
- In what situations did you feel you were making decisions based on character?
- What did you do that came naturally?
- What did you do that felt calculated and unnatural?
- How did you respond?
- How did you assist others in developing the character of their lives?
- Who is helping you grow in character?
- What will you do differently tomorrow as a leader?
Ask God to give you the faith to be the leader God has created you to be.