Who are the least of these really?

 “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.


Spiritual Growth Is Not (Really) About You

“Jack fruit” in Thailand.  A bit like eating a waxy mango. Photo by me.
Christians talk about spiritual growth a lot.  Churches encourage their participants to ‘grow in their faith.’  Resources abound to encourage and educate.
But what does spiritual growth actually mean?  And, what is actually growing?

There are always areas for growth in life. And when we think of spiritual growth sometimes those ‘oughts’ come to mind.  Ought to read the Bible.  Ought to be more involved in church.  Ought to share my faith. Ought to serve more.  Ought to be in a small group.  Ought to be gooder than I am.

Sometimes people define their ‘spiritual growth’ by the frequency of these oughts in their life.   I know sometimes I define growth this way.

But, what if the answer was not my “growth” really?  What if it was the growth of something else?  Something else is trying to grow in me but struggling to do so.

What if the answer is not our spiritual growth, but the gospel growing in us?

Jesus spoke about a man who went out to grow a garden so he cast a bunch of seed on the ground.  The seed was the message of the kingdom.

That seed was powerful.  Placed in the right soil Jesus said it could reproduce exponentially.  So much growth in fact that the sower didn’t care if he tossed valuable seed on ground that wouldn’t bear a crop!

You are that soil.  The seed is the gospel – the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God that has come to earth.  
It’s the seed that needs to grow, to stretch its roots into dark corners of your life.  It’s the seed that need to grow, to stretch its branches from your life to the lives of those around you.
We’re all caught up in our personal growth these days. Hundreds and hundreds of books, websites, and other resources are at our disposal to encourage growth.  Yet, it still doesn’t seem to be enough.  
We never seem to get off that wheel of trying to diagnose our condition and apply the right medicine.  But consider this…what if what needs to grow is NOT ME, but something else?
What if ‘growth’ is really about the kingdom growing in my heart and through me? If that’s true, then I become less visible.  The seed sprouts and people start seeing Jesus, not me.

The vision Jesus has for his followers is extremely compelling – bearing fruit 30, 60, 100 times what was sown.Who wouldn’t want that kind of life! I certainly do.  

To get there we have to stop trying to genetically engineer growth by hoping that more information, more activity, and more commitment will make it (or ‘us) grow.  That usually just wears us out, makes us dependent, or makes us feel guilty.

If you are a believer in Jesus, then the good news (like the seed) has been sown on your heart.  But, the spiritual life is not really about your growth or mine. 
It’s about the growth of the good news of Jesus and His reign in us.  That’s what’s struggling to grow.

If we get this wrong and think it is about us, then we will continue to feel a sense of discontent, inadequacy, and discouragement.

Jesus gives us 3 reasons the seed doesn’t grow to its full potential in the parable of the sower.  A fourth gives hope for a fruitful life.  We’ll deal with those in upcoming posts…

We’ll also look at ‘what is a fruitful life’ to begin with…

Read the parable for yourself in Matthew 13: 1 – 23