We should not read Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 as a full view of the final judgment. In fact, we would be foolish to view any of his parables as complete theological treatments. They exist, in most cases, to make a single, surprising point about the topic at hand rather than a comprehensive argument. Therefore, it’s incorrect to assume that our care or neglect of the poor will be the only dimension of God’s judgment.
Understanding that, we must not diminish the gravity of Jesus’ warning either. Notice that the “goats” on the King’s left side are condemned for their sins of omission rather than their sins of commission. Their guilt did not stem from what the did, but for what they failed to do. In many religious communities people are preoccupied, even fixated, upon their transgressions (and especially the transgressions of others). As a result, they make the Christian life little more than a sin-avoidance program. The goal simply becomes not actively participating in evil. This is a very low bar. It’s like celebrating an Olympic swimmer for crossing the pool without drowning.
In the parable just before the judgment of the sheep and goats, Jesus told of a “wicked” servant who buried his master’s talents (a sum of money) in the ground. He did not lose his master’s money, but he didn’t do anything productive with it either. The same theme is repeated in the King’s judgment of the goats. They are not condemned because they have committed evil acts, but because they have failed to commit good ones.
Likewise, merely avoiding moral calamity is not what we are called to as Jesus’ disciples. Instead, we are to use the love and power he has graced us with for the blessing of others and the healing of his world. It is not the sins we are tempted to commit that ought to frighten us, but the acts of justice we are never inspired to attempt.