“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'” Matthew 25: 40
This summer thousands of church teams from all over the USA will travel abroad or just down the road to serve others as part of a mission trip.
No doubt many of them will wear a self-identifying t-shirt with an inspiring verse about serving on the back.
And, likely at least some of those shirts will have a reference to Matthew 25:40 as if that team were going to serve ‘the least of these.’ And by that reference they will think that they (NOT the least) are going to serve the poor (the least.)
Personally, if I were the one being served and I saw a group wearing a shirt that labeled me ‘the least of these’ I would be offended. I think about the kids in Haiti or the families living in the city dumps of Thailand – am I willing to call them ‘the least?” Really?
But, nevertheless, this interpretation of Jesus’ words appears not just on mission team t-shirts, but I’ve seen it many times at conferences, heard it in sermons, and read it in church literature.
So, who was Jesus really talking about when he said ‘whatever you did for the least of these?’ Who are they really?
Typical interpretations these days make it seem like the poor are the least of these. So we talk about serving the poor as serving Jesus. That would seem to make sense if you’re looking at the passage from 2 perspectives. 1. Socially (status) 2 Economically (materialism)
Socially: The poor have the least status. They lack representation and a voice in the community.
Economically: The poor have the least amount, and even access to, resources. In our day, the situation is quite different than in Jesus’, but that’s another post.
What’s the problem with this interpretation? Several problems emerge.
1. “The poor” are an impersonal, people group category in this interpretation. But, Jesus calls “the least” “my brethren.”
2. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being poor. People are poor for many reasons. Why would there be special blessings reserved just for people who serve others of a certain economic condition?
3. The same “least of these” status is not often given to people in prison. Talk of serving “the least of these” today rarely centers on people in prison or even the sick. (Much less the ‘naked’ though that would be an interesting idea.) Yet, this passage suggests that “the least of these” will be hungry, sick, naked, a stranger, and even in prison.
4. It sets up that people can enter the kingdom based on works. There can be anonymous servants of Christ, who don’t even know Christ. According to the parable, those who are already accepted are surprised, they didn’t know they were serving Christ by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.
In the parable, the “sheep” do what the sheep do. The “goats” do what the goats do. Goats don’t become sheep because they serve people. The sheep are already sheep in God’s eyes and that’s why they serve.
Here’s another, and I think more accurate, interpretation. The “least of these” referred to Jesus’ own disciples. Here are my reasons…
1. He calls the “least” “my brethren.” Who are his brethren? Those who obey him, not those with a particular social and economic status.
2. Jesus, in other passages, identifies with his disciples. He doesn’t say “you saw a hungry man and fed him.” No, he says, “I was hungry and you fed ME.” What happens to us, happens to Jesus. Consider Luke 10:16
“He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
In similar fashion, here Jesus says that those who served “the least of these my brethren” served me. So, to reject Jesus’ disciples is to reject Jesus. To serve Jesus’ disciples is to serve Jesus.
Jesus expected that his followers would sacrifice their families, livelihoods, food, money, and houses to follow him. He expected them to face troubles of all kinds, including hunger, nakedness, sickness, being a stranger, even imprisonment.
We see these realities played out in the lives of his followers throughout the rest of the New Testament.
“The least of these” are not an impersonal category of people. It’s not based on social and economic standards.
“The least of these” is rather, a challenge to the church. We are called to place ourselves at the bottom of society, to give up our rights and power because our Lord did that. We are called to consider ourselves the least, to expect difficulty. There are many brothers and sisters around the world today who are hungry, naked, in prison, in need of hospitality, and sick. Followers of Jesus are suffering all around the world.
Yes, we are compelled to serve people in need. This post probably sounds heartless so don’t read what I’m not writing. But, Jesus identifies with his followers. He doesn’t identify with people based simply on their economic or social status alone. He looks at their faith and willingness to obey him. So, let’s look at this text for what it is saying to us about our own status and where we should place ourselves in society.
Let’s stop demeaning people who already struggle with not only the physical but psychological realities of poverty by calling them ‘the least of these.’
Let’s stop elevating ourselves because we think we are ‘serving the least.’
In reality, we are meant to be the least.
Oh, and let’s find other verses for the back of our t-shirts.