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.’
It’s true that the only difference worth making is the difference we make as we follow the example of the Difference Maker. But it’s also true, you know, that in order make that difference we take time to understand the difference that the Maker is calling us to make.
Last week in Part 1 of this series,His Own Heart took a one-dimensional look at our verse of focus. In light of that verse, we then began to look at what it means for the Christ-follower to live in the truth that the only difference worth making is the difference we make as we follow the example of our divine Leader.
That post was pretty straight-forward in terms of common-sense approaches to that truth and even ended with a brief assignment that – if you chose to work through it – hopefully gave you some ideas for shaping our heads, hearts and hands into objects fit to be used as valuable tools by the Difference Maker Himself.
And if you recall, Part 1 cut us some slack by giving us a one-time pass to meditate solely on the words of Matthew 25:40 – with no other context attached to it. That leniency ends abruptly as we return to scriptural reality in Part 2 and mark the halfway point of our series.
Before we delve back into the verse and discuss its relationship to the whole of Scripture, though, I’d like to do a bit of preliminary housekeeping in order to diffuse any confusion that may arise from points made in this week’s post.
- First and foremost, please know down to the deepest depth of your hearts that what you’re about to read in no way discounts or downplays the Christ-followers’ responsibility to serve or care for the poor, the downtrodden, the orphan, the widow, the indigent. Know to your core that we are called to reflect the love and compassion of our Lord when opportunities arise to do so. When the call comes, we are commanded to answer it accordingly (e.g. Proverbs 19:17;Philippians 2:4;James 1:27;2:14-17;1 John 3:17).
- Secondly, this post falls under the heading of neither conservative nor liberal,but simply Christian.The statement may seem a blunt – perhaps even culturally insensitive – one to some readers; but in the matter of Christ’s Body (the Church) carrying out the commands given by God in Scripture, there is no room for the drawing of divisive political lines. Think of it this way: if man was denied the right to break even one bone of His precious body in the horrific process of His crucifixion (see John 19:31-37), why would man be given any right to break or divide His present earthly body – His Church – by separating, adding to or deleting from a given passage of Scripture? Any area of the Church involved in this activity today plays, in fact, a dangerous game (Revelation 22:18).
- Finally, if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you likely know the prayerful importance that His Own Heart places on the practice and methodology of sound biblical interpretation. Our mission centers largely on the tenet, in fact, that Christ expects sound interpretation of His Word to flow unceasingly, undeniably and without apology from pulpit to pew, then spill beyond church walls into public arena (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
That said, let’s consider Matthew 25:40 from the larger picture of its context as written to its original New Testament audience in verses 31-46. For your convenience and due to its importance to our topic, I’ve placed the ESV reading of the entire passage below:
31 “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.”
As we determined last week, Christ’s breath-taking statement in this passage issues a challenge; essentially callingHis followers world-wide to model His concern for a group of people referenced as the least of these.
But whom, exactly, is being referenced here? And what, exactly, are we – Christ’s followers – being called to do for those referenced?
Admittedly, there seems to be an obvious answer to both questions: an answer written in black and white when we take the passage above at face value. And at its face value, the passage has been adopted as a mantra of sorts for a growing number of progressive Christians as well as young adult and even 30-something evangelicals, not to mention mainstream media outlets. Barely a day passes without someone on the other side of our TV screens arguing that their particular caused is support by Jesus’ admonishment to welcome-a-stranger-feed-the-hungry-clothe-the-naked-do-thus-and-so-for-the-least-of-these.
Using Scripture at its face value can be well and good, but more often than not we miss some very important points of application when we do this. For one thing, taking Scripture no deeper than its top layer can lead us down paths that bypass some important divine instruction. Our Matthew 25 passage provides a great illustration of that concept. Western culture has amended the overarching purpose behind the act of helping others. A lot of what’s done today – the marches, the protests, the taking of stands – is done in the name of social justice, when in reality our actions, our attitudes, our progress would look so very different and make much more of a difference if conducted in the Name of Christ, the Difference Maker.
Kevin DeYoung, an associate of The Gospel Coalition, offers an interesting take on the cost of this imbalance on the calling of Christ-followers. Young admits that the implications of Matthew 25 – whether they consist of increased government spending, a heightened concern for the concept of social justice, or a general shame over not doing one’s fair share in the name of the cause – are generally consider to be obvious from a basic reading of the text.
DeYoung counters, though – and I agree – that in popular usage of the phrase, there is precious little interpretive examination of what Jesus actually means by the least of these.And from an array of standpoints – social, theological, and certainly biblical – we are missing out on a second important directive from Christ in this passage.
DeYoung also offers the suggestion that on a deeper level, Christ is also teaching that
‘[t]he least of these’ refers to other believers in need — specifically, itinerant Christian teachers dependent on other Christians for hospitality and support.
He offers four legs of support for his theory:
- 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 23:1, 8-10, Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples that they are all brothers. The group of “brothers” is narrowed in the following verses to those who have one Father, who is in heaven and have one instructor, Christ. Further, brotheris 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).
- 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.
- The word “least” is the superlative form of micro (Greek for little ones), and mikroi always refers to the disciples in Matthew’s gospel (10:42;18:6,10,14; see also 11:11).
- 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 (10:5-15). 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.
The popular assumption is that because the least of these are society’s poor and downtrodden, marginalized, unknowing, unbelieving, misunderstood individuals beyond the confines of our church walls. This assumption naturally leads to the implication and that, in order to be upstanding followers of Christ, we must by default support any church, government, or other program whose mission is to help hurting people. And without a doubt there is a scriptural call to act compassionately in aiding individuals outside the body of Christ. Whether we stand within or without His Church, every individual has been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Equally true is the fact that Christ-followers have a responsibility to deal in kindness and compassion with strangers including those beyond the grounds of the Church (e.g. Galatians 6:10). But just as Paul specifies in the Galatians passage that we also do good also to those within the household of faith, Jesus is admonishing us to do the same thing in Matthew 25.
To miss this truth is to miss a valuable opportunity to make a deeper difference in tandem with the Difference Maker.
– Copyright 2018 Carole Anne Hallyburton. All rights reserved.
(Photo credit: https://pinewoodschapel.com.)