One of the most difficult, but interesting things with which scholars of the Gospels deal is trying to figure out what the historical Jesus actually did and said, and what the early Church created for Him to say and do.
Much of the difficulty stems from the Gospel community's belief that the risen Jesus in their midst is more important than the historical Jesus, who lived several generations before.
The risen Jesus is the only Jesus they've actually experienced. Though taught about a carpenter from Galilee who went around the Holy Land teaching and doing good things, and who eventually was executed by the authorities, none of them ever came in contact with that individual. By the time the evangelists composed their Gospels (between 70 and 95), the question was no longer, "What did Jesus day?" Rather, it became "What is Jesus saying?"
From our earliest Christian writings, Paul's letters, we realize Jesus' first followers quickly began to reflect on the message of His death and resurrection. They frequently asked the question, "If Jesus is alive among us, how does He affect our lives?"
The second reading (I Cor 15: 20-26) provides a classic response. Paul believes the risen Jesus is the first of a vast crowd of "those who have fallen asleep" who will come to life, the new Adam who brings life instead of death, the person who will reign until "all enemies are put under His feet," He who eventually will make certain that "God will be all in all."
Matthew provides a parallel reflection on the risen Jesus in the Gospel (Mt. 25: 31-46). But because he's an evangelist and not a letter-writer, he, like all Gospel writers, inserts his reflection in Jesus' words.
Matthew doesn't invent the image of God as a discerning shepherd, "judging between one sheep and another, between rams and goats." We know from the first reading (Ez 34: 11-12) that prophets employed similar metaphors for Yahweh centuries before Jesus' earthly ministry. But since Matthew shares Paul's belief that the risen Jesus will shepherd us to the pont where "God will be all in all," he gives a unique twist to this ancient concept.
Though no one doubts that the historical Jesus constantly encouraged His disciples to care for the helpless in their midst, most Scripture scholars question the historicity of His identifying with the helpless. That means the key statement -- "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me" -- most probably comes from Matthew's putting his theology into Jesus' mouth.
Looking for Jesus
Since official Church directives over the last 60 years have put an end to Catholic biblical fundamentalism, such an interpretation of this famous passage shouldn't cause anyone to lose any sleep. On the contrary, knowing that Matthew and his community, driven by their faith to surface the risen Jesus among them, discovered Him in the most unlikely people, we should be encouraged to continue our quest for His presence.
And just as Matthew tells us that even the "righteous" didn't instantly recognize the risen Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, so we also rarely experience Him until after we've given ourselves to the same people.
An ancient Jewish proverb states that it makes more sense to listen to a soldier's boasting while he takes off his armor rather than while he puts it on. In the same way, we should pay more attention to those who relay their experiences to us after they've surfaced Jesus among them, rather than to someone who simply tells us where we're supposed to find Him.
For Christians, results are always better than projections.