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savagebuttonMatthew 25:31-46 is a beautiful statement of Jesus’s concern for the weak and the vulnerable. It’s also a challenging exhortation for Christians to model the same concern.

But what exactly does Jesus mean by “the least of these”?

It’s often assumed that “the least of these” are society’s poor and downtrodden, and that, by implication, Jesus would have us support any program (church, government, or otherwise) that aims to help hurting people. While it is certainly good to care for those outside the church (Gal. 6:10), we must be careful not to make Matthew 25 say more than it means to say. How the government spends our tax dollars is a question that sincere Christians can disagree on. It’s not my place as a pastor to make definitive statements on proposed federal budgets.

What’s more important to me is that we handle the Bible carefully, both from the pulpit and in our public pronouncements. Which is why we should try to understand “the least of these” in its proper context. What Jesus says in Matthew 25 is not “conservative” or “liberal.” It’s Christian, and has everything to do with how we treat other Christians.

“The least of these” refers to other believers in need—specifically, itinerant Christian teachers dependent on other Christians for hospitality and support. That’s my answer to the title of this blog post.

Let me offer four points in support of this interpretation.

Supporting Points

1. In verse 45 Jesus uses the phrase “the least of these,” but in verse 40 he uses a 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. Whatever “the least of these” is about, it’s about “the least of these” who are brothers.

The reference to “my brothers” cannot be a reference to all of suffering humanity. “Brother” is never used this way in the New Testament. The word always refers to a physical/blood brother or to the spiritual family of God. With regard to the first category, Jesus is clearly not asking us only to care for his brother James. He must be speaking from the second category, insisting that whatever we do for believers 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 his disciples (v. 1) that they are all brothers (v. 8). The group of “brothers” is narrowed in the following verses to those who have one Father, who is in heaven (v. 9) and have one instructor, Christ (v. 10). “Brother” is a narrower category than all suffering people or all people everywhere. Those who belong to Christ 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 to hear him saying, “You should see my image in the faces of the poor.” Granted, Jesus was a “man of sorrows,” so other sufferers may be able to identify with Jesus in a special way. But in the rest of the New Testament it’s not the poor but the body of Christ (the church) that represents Christ on earth. Christ “in us” is the promise of the gospel for those who believe, not an assumed reality for those living in a certain economic condition.

Matthew 25 equates caring for Jesus’s spiritual family with caring for Jesus. The passage does not offer the generic message: “care for the poor and you’re caring for me.” This doesn’t mean God is indifferent to the concerns of the poor or that we should be either. It simply means that “the least of these” is not a blanket statement about physical deprivation.

3. The word “least” is the superlative from of mikroi (little ones), and mikroi 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. In Matthew 10:40-42, Jesus tells the disciples, “Whoever receives you receives 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.” The context for these remarks is Jesus sending out his disciples to minister throughout the towns of Israel (vv. 5-15). The disciples were to take no bag or staff for the journey. Instead, they were to seek a “worthy” house that would welcome them in. Their success as preachers would depend upon the kindness of others. In the face of persecution and a hostile world (10:16-39), Jesus exhorts his followers to care for the traveling minister, no matter the cost. The disciples would depend upon the good will of others to welcome them, feed them, and support them in their itinerant ministry. So Jesus explains that to show love in this way to his ambassadors is actually to show love to 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—essentially, an early 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 handout. But as for the true teacher: “welcome him as you would the Lord” (11:2). This was a pressing issue in the early church and the crux of Jesus’s concern in Matthew 10 and 25.

Conclusion

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 who depend 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, let alone a definitive statement about federal budgets.

Again, this is no excuse to be indifferent toward the poor or unconcerned about hurting people. Christians can argue for any number of programs based on other texts and other principles. But as an exegetical point about Matthew 25, we must try our best to say what the text means to say. And in this case, Jesus says we are big trouble if we are too embarrassed, too lazy, or too cowardly to support fellow Christians who depend on our assistance and suffer for the sake of the gospel.

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13 thoughts on “Who Are ‘The Least of These’?”

  1. neville briggs says:

    To claim that the Jesus words in Matt 25 can be used to create a doctrine of financial support for professional clergy is not supported at all by the context.

    In fact in Matthew 25, the statement about the “least of these” is preceded by Jesus announcing a judgement on the nations. The scene here is about national responsibility not individual responsibility.

    At the time of this address ( matt25 ) Jesus was a Jew. Jesus’ family, Jesus’ brothers were the Jewish nation.
    Jesus discourse in Matthew 24 and 25 were obviously directed at the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

    After the fall of Jerusalem the Jews were dispersed throughout ” the nations ” How these nations dealt with Jesus brothers , the Jews , would be a matter of judgement.

    Jesus explains in another place how followers of Christ can expect to be treated, He gives no hint of national judgement like Matt 25, on that subject.
    The book of Revelation seems to describe the coming of the destruction of ” the kingdom of the beast ” as vindication of the saints, quite a different scenario to Matt 25,

  2. No doubt this true but must be balanced aginst James 1:27 (caring for orphans and widows), Ps 68:5, 146:9 (father to the fatherless, caring for widows), Matt6 1-4: (giving to the poor), Isah 58:7 (feeding the hungry and poor stranger) Act20:35 (caring for the weak and giving to the poor). Im sure there are poor examples. We are lamps to world in word and deed to all people.

  3. correction….. more examples

  4. I must admit I miss read some of Kevins post. Nevilles post brought me back in to focus. I stand by the need to care for needy across society as much as we can. However, Apostle Paul example is instructive….Though Paul was educated as a scholar of Hebrew law (Acts 22:3), nevertheless, he had learned the trade of tent-maker.
    Accordingly, when Paul, on his second missionary journey, to Corinth, the first thing he did was seek work to sustain his needs. Aquila and Priscilla were of the same trade. To me this is how is should work. Get a profession first (other than Pastor) then take on a role of Pastor or Teacher (part time). Where is live this has been working well for one church while others who fully support full time staff are going broke.

  5. Peter says:

    I have always understood this passage as ultimately a fulfillment of Genesis 12:1-3. Those who bless the children of Abraham (the real children, those who share his faith, and who thus are Jesus’ brothers) will be blessed, while those who curse them shall be cursed.

  6. Jim Korth says:

    This is marvelous. For a long time I was afraid I was the “lone voice in the wilderness” properly exegeting this text. Of course, one’s theological grid would affect one’s interpretation. A Dispensational view, for example, would have to say this is about the way Jews are treated during the tribulation. A Covenant Theology view would hold to it being about the way the nations treat Christians. For NCT it would be similar but would emphasize this as fulfillment of Genesis 12:2-3 since the church is the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). But no matter how you slice it, this passage is NOT about social programs in general. Just because a person is hungry, naked, or in prison, he/she is not among the “brethren” apart from faith in Christ.

    Unfortunately, too many people may miss Kevin’s last paragraph. This is NOT saying we should not be involved in programs that aid the poor and downtrodden. He is simply saying not to base it upon THIS verse.

    I appreciate Kevin’s commitment to “rightly handling the word of truth!

  7. Mason Mandy says:

    Neville – you are wrong on several counts. First, the first part of Matt 24 refers to the destruction of the temple (both historical in 170 BC and the future in 70 AD) as far as verse 35, but afterwards refers to the Second Coming, and this continues through Matt 25. I don’t know of anyone who considers all of Matt 24-25 to refer to the physical destruction of Jerusalem and the temple – it makes no sense to read it that way. Second, the judgment of the “nations” in Matt 25: 32 refers to the final judgment of all people throughout the world. This is not a judgment on nations as such, but a reference to the universality of the judgment. There is never any mention of any corporate judgment of individual nations in the final judgment, so it can’t be about national responsibility. The entire context is the Kingdom of God in its full glory – Jesus does not have the conduct of nations in mind. Third, Jesus is not referring to the Jewish diaspora here – that reading is strained at best, and makes no sense in the context of the Second Coming.

  8. Martin says:

    The faithful presence of Jesus (and, therefore, us) in the world, does not allow for the compartmentalization of human intersections in our world. How else could we explain the inclusion of ‘stranger’ in verses 35, 38 and 43? Are we to first ask them if they are believers? And in Matthew 18 Jesus says “whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me”. Does Jesus only mean ‘believing’ children?

    Of course, we should provide for the needs of those in the church. However, this compartmentalization tends to evoke erroneous applications, particularly among the less mature in the faith. When we examine not only Christianity, but all major religions, the welcoming of ‘strangers and foreigners’ is a primary tenet of each.

  9. theophelous says:

    While I do not see from the context taking care of ministers, I do see taking care of any “sheep”. The nations are divided into “sheep” and “goats”. He is talking to the “goats” who heard what he said to the “sheep”. I think the “goats” understood he was talking about the least of the “sheep” not the least of the goats. Why because the “goats” go into eternal punishment and the “sheep” into eternal life.

  10. Peter and Jim, I love your connection between Genesis 12 and Matthew 25. I’m not sure there are any direct exegetical links, but that is really good theology!

    In response to the post: I tend to agree with DeYoung that “my brethren” refers to Jesus’ disciples, but disagree that it refers to Christian leaders. R. T. France (NICNT) notes that those who did the kind deeds had no idea they were doing them to Jesus. “As far as they were concerned, it was simply an act of kindness to a fellow human being in need, not an expression of their attitude to Jesus.” This observation cuts against DeYoung’s focus on Christian leaders (and also, perhaps, on the social justice emphasis on seeing Jesus in the face of the poor in the moment of serving them). It cuts against the focus on Christian leaders because it is not surprising to assume that a good deed done to a Christian leader is an expression of love for Christ. I would argue therefore that the passage, if it emphasizes any subgroup of Jesus’ disciples, actually emphasizes those who are usually considered socially inferior or “least”–such as the “little ones” of Matthew 18, which may include both physical and spiritual children, children having almost no social standing in ancient times. It would have indeed surprised Jesus’ disciples that a good deed done to a social “nobody” because he was Jesus’ disciple (Matt. 10:42) was actually, in God’s eyes, a good deed done to Christ.

    I would also suggest there may be a difference here between our use of “Christian” and the Matthean use of “disciple.” It seems to me that a “disciple” (or “little one”) could include anyone who is beginning to follow or seek after Jesus; even Matthew 28:19 may hint that the category of “disciples” can include some who are not yet baptized. Jesus has a special place in his heart for all the “little ones” who belong to him, even (especially!) those who are still wandering lost from his fold (Matt. 18).

  11. Perhaps the words used in Matthew 10 and Matthew 25 [where both itinerant apostles and needy believers are referred to by the terms mikros and elachistos, meaning small in size, low, little in dignity, humble, insignificant] refer to the vulnerable circumstances both groups find themselves in. Like the small child (mikros) Jesus refers to in Matthew 18 who is totally dependent upon others, itinerant apostles and needy believers likewise are dependent on others to meet their needs. Christ tells the apostles to take nothing with them on their journeys. Believers who are hungry, homeless, strangers, and ex-prisoners are equally small, humble, needy, and insignificant. The use of this Greek term to describe a small child, an itinerant apostle with nothing more than the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet, and the poor believer suggests the powerlessness and dependence of them all rather than pointing to the necessity of supporting Christian pastors. Secondly, the apostles were itinerant, unlike most pastors of local churches in 2017. Using The Didache, or these passages of scripture for that matter, to suggest financial support of the professional clergy we are familiar with seems to be misguided. From The Didache: “If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.” “But he must not stay more than one day, or two if necessary. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet.” “….let him work for his bread….not in idleness. If he will not do this, he is trading Christ for profit.” And finally, “If anyone says in the Spirit, ‘give me silver’ or asks for anything else, do not listen to him. But if he tells you to give to others that are in want, let no one judge him.”

  12. Hugh McCann says:

    Interesting, too, how the Apostle Paul’s litany of his trials matches Jesus’ list

  13. Eric F says:

    [Mat 25:37 NASB] 37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?

    So we can know from this scripture that the righteous do not have any clue who the least of these are.
    So praise the Lord we do not have any clue.
    And what does that mean for us if we think we know? Will we be able to respond like the righteous? “When did we?”

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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