All my life I heard Matthew 25:40 interpreted to be about Christians helping the poor.
Just last week the “Bible fog” lifted, and I really heard the context of the whole passage.
Maybe you read this next and think, Duh, I always knew that. But for me I am sure I always subconsciously “bought” the whole this-is-about-Christians-helping-poor-people assumption. When “social justice”-styled professing Christians quoted the verse that way, I accepted their argument and moved on to other reasons why helping the poor isn’t the be-all-end-all of the Bible (something like, Yes, that’s important, but what’s also important is …).
But actually, though taking care of the poor is a Scriptural concept, it’s not exactly here.
The other day I heard activist Jim Wallis, in a debate with Marvin Olasky, quote verse 40. His point was that Christians need to do righteous to “the least of these.” If I remember correctly, he didn’t quote the whole verse — just the part about caring for the poor. (Ironically, the entire chapter is about the coming Kingdom and God’s judgment, a topic Wallis didn’t mention.)
But here’s the full context — from Mark 25: 31-40:
The least of who? All poor people? Victims of oppression? The hungry? Maybe Scripture talks about these elsewhere, but it’s not here. The least of who? The least of these my brothers. Who are they? It’s not the whole human race — rather, His disciples who do His will.
[S]tretching out his hand toward his disciples, [Jesus] said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Matthew 12: 49-50
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.”
[. . .]
“The least of these” refers to other Christians in need, in particular itinerant Christian teachers dependent on hospitality from their family of faith.
[. . .]
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.
And just today I caught more of the same truth from D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.2 Summarizing Biblical texts some professing Christians often mangle to support their favorite social/political causes, Carson notes:
In the hands of some writers, what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is social concern: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, visiting people in prison—along with the dramatic addition of Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (25:40, 45).[NIV] But that misses the point here. Certainly the Bible lays considerable stress elsewhere on compassion, justice, acts of mercy, kindness, and much else—as shown by Isaiah and Amos and the parable of the good Samaritan. But it has often been shown that in Matthew’s gospel the expression “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” can only refer to the least of his followers. In other words, the sheep and the goats are exposed for what they are by the way they treat the downtrodden of Jesus’ followers.
One more phrase I’ll be using more carefully. Such a difference a few words can make.