It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an entry in this series, but I haven’t forgotten about it. There are seven “social justice” passages I want to examine: Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6, Matthew 25, and Luke 4. I’d like to jump ahead today and deal with Matthew 25:31-46.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 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.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, 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 no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, 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.”
Matthew 25 has become a favorite passage for many progressives and younger evangelicals. Even in the mainstream media it seems like hardly a day goes by without someone referencing Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. And few biblical phrases have gotten as much traction as “the least of these.” Whole movements have emerged whose central tenet is to care for “the least of these” ala Matthew 25. The implications–whether it be increased government spending, increased concern for “social justice,” or a general shame over not doing enough–are usually thought to be obvious from the text.
But in popular usage of the phrase, there’s almost no careful examination of what Jesus actually means by “the least of these.” Even brilliant scholars are not immune to this oversight. In his important book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues at one point that Christ makes “our treatment of strangers” a “measure of righteousness.” He then quotes from Matthew 25:34-40, followed by this conclusion: “To welcome the stranger–those outside of the community of faith–is to welcome Christ. Believer or nonbeliever, attractive or unattractive, admirable or disreputable, upstanding or vile–the stranger is marked by the image of God” (245). Now, it’s certainly true that we all are made in God’s image. It’s also true, on other grounds, that dealing kindly with strangers, even those outside the church, is a good thing (Gal. 6:10). But it’s difficult to conclude this is Jesus’ point in Matthew 25.
So who are “the least of these” if they are not society’s poor and downtrodden? “The least of these” refers to other Christians in need, in particular itinerant Christian teachers dependent on hospitality from their family of faith. Let me explain.
Four Supporting Points
1. In verse 45 Jesus uses the phrase “the least of these,” but in verse 40 he uses the more exact phrase “the least of these of my brothers.” The two phrases refer to the same group. So the more complete phrase in verse 40 should be used to explain the shorter phrase in verse 45. The reference to “my brothers” cannot be a reference to all of suffering humanity. “Brother” is not used that way in the New Testament. The word always refers to a physical-blood brother or to the spiritual family of God. Clearly Jesus is not asking us to only care for his brother James. So he must be insisting that whatever we do for our fellow Christians in need we do for him.
This interpretation is confirmed when we look at the last time before chapter 25 where Jesus talks about “brothers.” In Matthew 23, Jesus tells the crowds and disciples (1) that they are all brothers (8). The group of “brothers” is narrowed in the following verses to those who have one Father, who is in heaven (9) and have one instructor, Christ (10). Jesus does not call all people everywhere brothers. Those who belong to him and do his will are his brothers (Mark 3:35).
2. Likewise, it makes more sense to think Jesus is comparing service to fellow believers with service to him rather than imagining Jesus to be saying, “You should see my image in the faces of the poor.” Granted, Jesus was a “man of sorrows,” so to understand that sufferers may be able to identify with Jesus in a special way is wholly appropriate. But in the rest of the New Testament it’s the body of Christ that represents Christ on earth, not the poor. Christ “in us” is the promise of the gospel for those who believe, not for those living in a certain economic condition. Matthew 25 equates caring for Jesus’ spiritual family with caring for Jesus. The passage does not offer the generic message: “care for the poor and you’re caring for me.”
3. The word “least” is the superlative from of mikroi (little ones), which always refers to the disciples in Matthew’s gospel (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14; see also 11:11).
4. The similarity between Matthew 10 and 25 is not accidental. They are talking about the same thing. “Whoever receives you receive me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matt. 10:40-42). Clearly Jesus is speaking hear of disciples. The context is Jesus sending out his disciples to do itinerant ministry (vv 5-15). In the face of persecution and a hostile world (vv. 16-39), Jesus wants to encourage his followers to care for the traveling minister no matter the cost. The disciples would be solely dependent upon the good will of others to welcome them, feed them, and support them in their traveling work. So Jesus assures his followers that to show love in this way is actually to love him.
One of the first post-canon documents, The Didache, demonstrates that caring for traveling ministers was a pressing issue in the first centuries of the church’s history. The Didache, which has been compared to a church constitution, contains 15 short chapters, three of which deal with the protocol for welcoming itinerant teachers, apostles, and prophets. Some so-called ministers, the document concludes, are cheats looking for a hand-out. But as for the true teacher: “welcome him as you would the Lord” (11:2).
Matthew 25 is about social justice in the sense that it is about caring for the needy. But the needy in view are fellow Christians, especially those dependent on our hospitality and generosity for their ministry. “The least of these” is not a blanket statement about the church’s responsibility to meet the needs of all the poor (though we do not want to be indifferent to hurting people). Nor should the phrase be used as a general cover for anything and everything we want to promote under the banner of social justice. Jesus says if we are too embarrassed, too lazy, or too cowardly to support our fellow Christians who depend on our assistance and are suffering for the sake of the gospel, we will go to hell. We should not make this passage say anything more or less than this.