This picture of humanity's final judgment gets around pretty good -- even people who don't really believe in a final judgment sometimes like to refer to it because the behavior Jesus calls for matches the behavior they want people to adopt.
Simply put, Jesus directs people to help other folks, and suggests that one of the things that will be weighed in that last day are whether or not we helped other folks. Although I do believe in a final judgment, I don't know if Jesus intended to exactly describe it here or if he intended to make a point independent of how literally we might wish to take his vision. To me, that point is that in order to be a true follower of Christ, we must be willing to help others. And we must be willing to help others based on one and only one standard: Their need.
See, nothing suggests that the people Jesus condemns were completely selfish folks who stole candy from babies and dropped Monopoly money into the collection plate. Like today, the number of people who'll help out isn't small, but way too often we will help people out on our own terms. We'll help family, or friends or people we care about. We'll help people we know. In those days, people might limit their assistance to people from their own village or from their own homelands. Or maybe people who needed help because they'd had bad luck...but not people who'd made their own mess.
Jesus said that idea of helping wouldn't fly. The only standard we can use is whether or not people need help. If they need it, the followers of Christ will provide it, or else they might as well be rejecting Christ himself.
Of course we have to be wise when we help. Sometimes people in need ask for things that really won't help them at all, but only make their problems worse. The ministerial alliance in one town I served offered help for people who couldn't pay their utility bills. The first time was just a matter of verifying the need, but the second time they had you attend a seminar on financial planning, so you could try to make the money you did have go as far as possible. Many of the people needing that help had never planned their spending before or had never made a budget.
Habitat for Humanity operates a little like that too. They don't just give you a house. For one, you work on it too. For another, you buy the house, which means you have to get your finances in order before you can qualify. Debts have to be paid down, savings have to be set aside, income has to be stable, and so on, because Habitat wants to truly help people and they know that slapping another thing they don't know how to pay for on top of all the other problems doesn't help those people.
So maybe it's not a good idea to give panhandler money. Maybe it is. We'll each need to check our own consciences on that, because there are no guarantees we judge rightly. Even so, all this caution means is that we try to be wise when, not if, we help -- it doesn't let us off the hook just because we don't like the person in need. We get off that hook only if the person is not in need or if we don't have any way to help them. And those occasions are rarer than we think. We may think we're squeezed and we've got little to give, but consider the following:
We're giving away Thanksgiving baskets this holiday, of food so some families can enjoy a holiday meal. One of the women selected for us called our office this week -- she also gets food from our food pantry now and again -- and told our secretary that she had another friend who needed that basket more than she did and so could we please give the basket to the other family instead. Even if you've got next to nothing, there's someone out there who's actually got nothing, and you might be able to help them.
The key idea in Jesus laying down such a radical standard of helping is to take the focus of the helping away from us and whatever standards we might use to judge who is worthy of our help and put the focus on God. Jesus wants us to remember those in need stand where we stand -- sinners in need of grace, loved by God though none of us deserve it. He wants us to remember that when we were the ones in need, he gave what he had though we had seriously made our own mess and he didn't have to give us anything.
We've talked about how worship is our response to God, and a part of that response is thanksgiving. It spreads beyond worship, too. We can't offer God a single thing God doesn't already have, so if we want to show God our gratitude, we have to find somewhere else to give our gifts. Here in Matthew, Jesus spells out just exactly where we might find some of that somewhere else, and some of the folks who live there.