The Least of These: Who Are They?

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

I recently heard a pastor on the radio talking about an experience he had with a homeless man. The pastor recounted how he had driven past the man and had no money to lend. The pastor drove away and says that the words of Jesus immediately flooded into his mind. The pastor explained that the words of Jesus that were in his head at this point were words taken from Matthew 25:40. That text reads, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (ESV). The pastor, understanding this passage to imply that we should care for the random homeless man, goes to his office and collects donations from staff members. He then takes the financial aid he collected back to the man in need.

Now, I do not in any way intend to negate the positive impulse of the pastor that is mentioned above. His care and concern for the poor and needy among us is admirable and should be true of us all. When we see those in need we should have some level of concern and desire to care for them as much as we can. What I do intend to question is whether or not we can appeal to Matthew 25:40 (cf. 25:45) as a text that teaches us to care for the poor and needy in general. My contention is that while the Bible certainly calls us to care for the weak, needy, and destitute of society, Matthew 25:31-46 is a passage that deals with how we care for those who are brothers and sisters and belong to the King.[1]

 The immediate context begins in 25:31 with the Son of Man sitting on his throne. Before him are gathered the nations (described as sheep and goats). The Son of Man begins to separate the sheep from the goats with sheep being placed on his right. These sheep are said to inherit the kingdom. What characterized these sheep was their care for the hungry and the thirsty, the strangers and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned (vv. 35-36). In contrast, the goats were characterized by a lack of these deeds (vv. 43-44) and are placed on his left and are finally cast into “eternal fire” (vs. 41).

Of particular interest is the identity of “the least of these.” They were cared for by the sheep and neglected by the goats. Are they all people who are sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, etc.? Are they all people who are imprisoned and in the hospital (sick)? Or can we understand the referent in more narrow terms? Well, let’s look at some specific ways they are referenced.

 The “least of these” are first identified as “my brothers” (τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου) in vs. 40. John Piper says the following about this verse and who these “brothers” are: “His brothers are his disciples. This is not everybody. This is not every suffering person. Jesus does not call his enemies his brothers” (listen to the sermon here). John MacArthur suggests the same understanding when he says, “Who are His brethren?  Well, Hebrews 2:11 and 12 says He’s not ashamed to call us who believe His brethren.  I believe He’s referring to the redeemed people.  I believe He is simply saying this, whatever you do to meet the need of a fellow Christian, you do to Me” (listen to the sermon here). It would seem that the “least of these” is a reference, at least here, to those who are related to the King as brothers (see, again, Hebrews 2:11-12).

Second, notice that the “least of these” are so closely related to the King that ministering to them is seen as ministering to the King and neglecting ministry to the “brothers” is seen as neglecting the King (41-46; cf. Acts 9:4). This would seem odd if this were a reference to even those who stood as enemies of God (Rom. 5:10).

More could be said, but within the context it seems that caring for the “least of these” is caring for those who are part of the Church. We certainly see in the NT that we are to care for members of the body of Christ. The early followers of Jesus certainly demonstrate this for us in the book of Acts (2:42-47; 4:32-37). And when we read this passage as speaking of “the least of these” as Christians, how important does caring for members of the household of faith become? Failing to do so is a characteristic of those who are damned and being faithful in this area is a characteristic of one who is ushered into the kingdom. Oh, how important it is that we love those in the Church!

Now, as I stated before, I do not mean to undermine the impulse of the pastor mentioned in the beginning who wanted to care for the homeless man. There are other texts that call us to this type of action (Luke 6:27-32; James 1:27). We are right to call the Church to care for those who are broken, helpless, hungry, and in need. Yet, we are wrong to appeal to Matthew 25 and “the least of these” as our basis for it. What we have is a case of right theology coming from the wrong text.

[1] I want to thank two seminary brothers who corrected my usage of this verse. After a conversation in which they helped me to see the passage more clearly and more contextually, I set out to think a bit more on the text. This post is a result of those two brothers sharpening me. Thanks Dan Weller and Luke Humphrey.



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