The predominant view of “the least of these” in church history

It’s hard to predict when a blog post will be particularly popular or controversial. I had no idea that my post last week about “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40) would provoke the response that it has. Some people have expressed appreciation, and others have been positively outraged at the suggestion that “the least of these” might be a reference to Christians and not to the poor in general. In fact, the comments from some on social media have been downright angry and sometimes even foul. There was even a news story devoted solely to discussing the post.

One of the most consistent objections that I have read is that this interpretation is novel. It is an interpretation that I have conjured up in order to promote my side of the “culture war.” Even though I made the case exegetically in that original post, many have rejected the argument out-of-hand as a historical novelty.

So I thought it might be worth the time to examine whether this view is really a novelty in the history of interpretation. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, Craig Keener, Don Hagner, Michael Wilkins, David Turner, Grant Osborne, and many other Matthew commentators highlight Sherman Gray’s 1989 book titled The Least of My Brothers : Matthew 25: 31-46 : A History of Interpretation. It’s a scholarly monograph that marshals an impressive amount of research on how “the least of these” has been understood throughout church history. It’s an expansive piece of work that goes right to the heart of the historical question we’ve been discussing here.

Gray argues that commentators over the centuries have interpreted “the least of these” in one of three ways: (1) a narrow reference to Christians, (2) a general reference to the poor, or (3) an unspecific identification of “the least of these.” Here’s a closer look at each historical period:

In the Patristic Period, you can find the narrow interpretation in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, and (most notably) Augustine. Augustine’s towering influence is well-known. He refers to “the least” 44 times in his writings, and “nowhere does Augustine specifically state that ‘the least’ are the poor in general… it is obvious that the Christian poor are meant” (p. 69). Whereas some of the patristics are inconsistent in their references to “the least,” Augustine is consistent in identifying “the least” as Christians. Thus, “Augustine comes down clearly on the side of those who hold a restrictive viewpoint” (p. 71).

In the Medieval Period, the narrow interpretation is found in Anselm of Laon, who says that “the least” are not the poor in general, “but only those who are poor in spirit who, having put aside their own will, do the will of the heavenly Father” (p. 168). It is also in Bonaventure, who “clearly identifies ‘the least’ as Christians” (p. 175). The most influential theologian of this period is obviously Aquinas, and he also comes down clearly identifiying “the least” as Christ’s disciples (p. 180).

In the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, you can find this interpretation in a number of figures including Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. Of course, the latter two are the towering figures of the Reformation, and so it is significant that both Luther and Calvin are clear that “the least” are Christians (pp. 203-206, 208).

The amount of evidence that Gray covers is vast and can hardly be reproduced in a single blog post. But we can summarize his findings with respect to the narrow view of “the least of these.” He concludes that if one sets aside references to the “least of these” that are unspecified, “then it is clear that the narrow interpretation of ‘the least’ is the predominant viewpoint throughout the centuries” (p. 349). The narrow view is held 68% of the time in Middle Ages and 74% of the time in the Renaissance/Reformation (pp. 349-50).

None of this establishes the narrow view as the correct interpretation. That has to be settled on exegetical grounds. This impressive survey, however, does establish that interpreting “the least of these” as Christians is no historical anomaly. It has an impressive pedigree in every major period of church history. And I would argue that there is a good reason for that. The most careful readers of Matthew 25:40 have understood that Jesus was referring to his followers when he spoke of “the least of these.” And that is how we should understand it as well.

—————

Source: Sherman W. Gray, The Least of My Brothers : Matthew 25: 31-46 : A History of Interpretation, SBL Dissertation Series 114 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989). 462pp. $44.06.

36 Responses to The predominant view of “the least of these” in church history

  1. Richard May 18, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    Excellent post again. It amazes me that a society and people who use the tagline of Christian, are so divorced from the exegetical and the historical continuity of Scripture that we must constantly defend the traditional view of Christian thinking.

    • Chris Ryan May 19, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

      The exegesis is half right. But it overlooks the word “stranger” and how much hinges on that. The point of the scripture is that we don’t know who may or may not be under God’s grace and that we should treat everyone as if they are. This also accords with Christ’s injunction to love others as you love yourself, as well as the OT injunction to treat foreigners as you do your own kinsfolk. Thats a more complete reading than simply the narrow one offered here.

      • Christiane Smith May 19, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

        Hi CHRIS, I agree with you about the word ‘stranger’ being meaningful. And I also recall from the OT the proclamation that the Lord hears the cry of the poor.

        Separating ‘the poor’ from ‘the Christian poor’ runs into a problem when we learn from sacred Scripture that to heap contempt on the poor is to show contempt to their Maker.

        There is much in the whole of sacred Scripture to offer support for a wider interpretation of Matthew’s ‘the least of these’

        There is a unity that flows through all of sacred Scripture which enhances rather than restricts the meaning of many verses,
        so that no separation of the OT from the NT can happen without loss of full meaning.

        • Randall Seale May 19, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

          Would it even be possible in your view for Jesus at that juncture of His earthly ministry to suggest in this judgment that He will reward His sheep for the smallest act of kindness shown to the least of His brothers? Is it possible?

          “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.” (Mt. 10:42, ESV)

          • Christiane Smith May 19, 2015 at 8:58 pm #

            Hi RANDALL,
            I think it possible that Our Lord WILL reward acts of kindness, yes. If you think about ‘His brothers’ as meaning His servants who have gone out into the mission fields, then I offer this thought:
            that IF they are the servant of Our Lord, they will then share what they have been given with the less fortunate around them, out of love for Him;
            so ‘love’ itself circulates and overflows ‘boundaries’ and crosses over ‘differences’ and finds the places where it is most needed eventually, among the humble people of the Earth. And I offer this example to back up my thought:
            I am Catholic, but I consider Lottie Moon to be a saint of the Church for her holy work among the Chinese people. The ‘story’ goes that she was given food in China when there was a terrible famine and people were dying of starvation. She loved the Chinese people and she shared her own food with them, apparently going without herself, because when she died, she weighed very little and it is suspected that she died because of complications from her sacrifice for the sake of those she loved in the Name of the Lord.

            In that light, I can say ‘yes’ to your question . . . no act of kindness in this world goes unrewarded (and I sometimes think no act of unkindness goes unnoticed by Our Lord). If a Christian person gives aid to a servant of Christ, it is a gift of love . . . and if the servant is truly a ‘slave of Christ’, he or she will share that gift of love openly with those even less fortunate if need be, freely, without thought of recompense . . .

            (BTW, in the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, Lottie Moon in listed in their canon of saints and has her own day on the Church calendar.)

            • Randall Seale May 19, 2015 at 11:35 pm #

              Christiane,

              Thanks for your thoughtful response. I didn’t mean to ask does Christ reward acts of kindness. In my view, He does. Rather, I was asking does your view of Scripture’s teaching regarding the poor even allow for Denny’s interpretation of Mt. 25 (which I think is spot on)? IOW, “one of the least of these my brothers” – is it even possible in your understanding of the Scriptures that the Lord Jesus was referring exclusively to His followers and not the poor in general?

              • Christiane Smith May 20, 2015 at 3:37 am #

                Hi RANDALL,
                ‘exclusively’ is not so much in the Catholic lexicon as it is used in some other branches of our Christian family . . . reason:
                God is seen as harboring the poor . . . as a Refuge for the poor of this Earth . . . ‘the poor’ being the unborn, the fatherless, the helpless ones, the sick, the injured in mind or body who suffer without hope, who live in darkness and long for the coming of the Light . . .

                and so God sends forth His Son to announce to these poor the proclamation (kerygma) of ‘The Kingdom of God’;
                and in time, Our Lord sends forth His apostles in the same way: ‘as the Father has sent Me, I also send you’ . . . and their mission now includes the kerygma (proclamation) of the entire Christ Event to the poor of all Creation.

                RANDALL, imagine the Holy Trinity;

                and within the unity of the Trinity, imagine Our Lord;

                and within Christ the Lord, imagine those He sends forth as He was sent and yes, they do now live ‘in Christ’;

                and within this Body of Christ at its very heart,
                imagine ‘the poor’ of this Earth: the fatherless, the maligned, those who are suffering, the unborn, the weakest and most vulnerable of our human kind, surrounded by the whole Body of Christ and cared for in His Name . . .

                “exclusive”?
                I would have to use another word, RANDALL

  2. Ken Temple May 18, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    You were right Denny. I wish I had had time to comment more right now. Another aspect is the context of Matthew 24-25 is that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all the nations. (Matthew 24:14) then all the nations are gathered in (see Matthew 25:31-32) at the judgment. The judgement is on how the nations (the ethnic peoples, the unreached peoples, every tribe and people and tongue – Revelation 5:9) has responded to the gospel and in turn treated “these brothers of mine” (Christians, evanagelists, missionaries, disciples of Jesus evangelizing and sharing their faith) – so how they treated them means their response to the gospel was true justifying faith, which results in the kind of behavior that is mentioned in Matthew 25. (visiting in prison, giving water, food, shelter, etc.)

    “all the nations” (Matthew 24:14)

    31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. . . .

    Another important passage is Hebrews 2:11 – “He is not ashamed to them brothers”

    I appreciate your blog very much!

  3. Todd Pruitt May 18, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    Excellent. Thanks for these posts Denny.

  4. S. Daniel Owens May 18, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    Your problem is not with the interpretation, but, as usual, with your insane application. “This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ.” Uh, no. No. No.

    Christ has never said don’t be kind or serve people who you disagree with. Your salt has lost its saltiness. Its the so-called Christians slamming the door (of their business) not the world slamming the door on them! Sharing Christ is not the same as hating gays. You are so far from walking in the Spirit that you no longer represent Christ. You should repent but we all know you will double down and call it persecution.

    • Ian Shaw May 18, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

      “Sharing Christ is not the same as hating gays”. Not exactly, society has moved from that to anyone disagreeing with gays means you hate them. Christians did not “slam” the door. Rhetoric seems to be 90% of your story here. Those businesses chose not to serve customers where their work was purposed for 1 specific event, not everything. Many of those owners gladly and joyfully served gays prior. They did not “slam” the door on gays. If you want to say they “slammed” the door on anything, it was on gay weddings, not gays.

      If you wanted to share your opinion/disagreement, you could have done so without personally attacking Denny (90% of your statement). You could have even given your opinion on the application and given resources to back it up as well. Personally, claiming someone’s application is “insane” is a bit offensive. Work with people that are mentally ill and I’d wager you never use that term again.

      • S. Daniel Owens May 18, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

        Ian,

        Nice try but I just so happen to be a Special Education teacher in Dallas, TX who each of the last six years has worked with students labeled ID (intellectually disabled or as used to be called, Mentally Retarded). I guess you shouldn’t bet anymore.

        Yes, I could have chosen to not call him to account, but I didn’t. I have been around this sort of hubris for too long (I graduated from DTS where Denny went) and it is idolatrous and laughable.

        As far as society moving away — yes, they have — that is not persecution. Its called equality in a nation that is supposed to be neutral respecting religion. As for “many of those owners,” yes, but who is talking about “many?” Not, Denny, he is talking about specific cases that involve prosecution.

        As for “rhetoric being 90%” of my story or “90%” of my statement attacking Denny, how did you come up with those facts? I bet 100% of your stats are self serving and false.

        Why would I give resources to back up that the “least of these” is not the baker, florist etc? Its asinine to say that! Why aren’t we asking why the “least of these” isn’t the marginalized black males being stalked by the police? Are none of them Christian’s?

        • Brian Holland May 19, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

          You don’t think that Christian bakers and photographers are being persecuted for their faith in Christ? And since you brought it up, what “marginalized black males” are being “stalked by the police”? Your statement is demonstrably false on many levels, but even if it were true, what would their faith in Christ have to do with them being persecuted? Actually I would argue that black conservatives are the ones who are persecuted for their Christian values and beliefs by other blacks, since Christianity is considered the “white man’s religion.”

    • C. M. Granger May 19, 2015 at 12:08 am #

      It’s not hatred to refuse to celebrate or participate in the celebration of something that offends the God whom you love and serve.

      • S. Daniel Owens May 19, 2015 at 9:53 am #

        Who said that this offends God? Did God say that?

        • C. M. Granger May 19, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

          Yes, He did. If you disagree, make your case from Scripture.

          • S. Daniel Owens May 21, 2015 at 9:44 am #

            You want me to explain to you why Torah is not binding to Gentiles?

            • C. M. Granger May 22, 2015 at 1:29 am #

              No, I want you to show me from Scripture how same sex marriage and homosexual activity is good, right, and pleasing to God

    • Randall Seale May 19, 2015 at 12:18 am #

      @ S. Daniel Owens

      Denny has made a solid case on exegetical grounds from Matthew that “Christ’s brothers – the elachistov” (even the least, most insignificant, smallest of His brothers) (Mt. 25:4) refers specifically to Christ’s brothers who are impoverished and imprisoned due to their allegiance to Him. To apply this to those of His people of today who are in the very process of becoming impoverished for righteousness sake (Mt. 5:10) is not some insane application.

      I don’t think anyone posting in this or Denny’s previous thread is suggesting that Christ’s disciples be unkind. But to equate being unkind with refusing to accommodate the spirit of the age is flawed theologically. Standing for light and truth as demonstrated by Christ offends.

      BTW, what’s a salty, sane man like yourself doing posting on an insane man’s blog?

      • S. Daniel Owens May 19, 2015 at 10:04 am #

        Yeah, I totally agree with the exegesis. I clearly stated that up front. Its the application. Just because you say you represent God and are being persecuted for his name doesn’t mean God recognizes it. (See Is. 48, Rom 9-11). Christians in America have become so used to being dominant politically that they go crazy when their power is questioned. I for one believe the Scriptures are clear that we are to be salt. Even if homosexual marriage was “wrong” we should still go the extra mile. Righteousness sake? Please. Jesus was a friend of sinners. Searching for lost things is part of our call. God isn’t offended by the world as much as he is offended by his people following commandments of men instead of the Spirit. The God that you all witnessing to the world is a weak and petty God. Shame on you.

        Your final question or should I say attempt to shame me says it all:
        “BTW, what’s a salty, sane man like yourself doing posting on an insane man’s blog?” I’m witnessing, bro. I don’t just hang around people like me. Remember, sound exegesis, what Denny is doing, isn’t valued by the NT anywhere near walking in the Spirit.

        • Johnny Mason May 19, 2015 at 10:23 am #

          Jesus was a friend of sinners, but he never approved their sin, honored their sin, or participated in their sin. The florist who was sued was actually friends with the gay couple. They were frequent customers who had a very friendly relationship with the florist. When the florist was asked to provide floral arrangements for their wedding, she kindly declined because of her beliefs and recommended a nearby florist to accommodate them. She didn’t slam the door in their face, she didnt spit on them, as one poster on here said. She kindly and gently let them know that she could not participate in this event. She could not lend her talents to glorify and honor something that went contrary to her beliefs. That was being salt.

          There is no saltiness in honoring sinfulness. There is no saltiness in approving sin. Saltiness does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth.

    • Brett Cody May 19, 2015 at 9:14 am #

      Come back to the discussion, S. Daniel. Denny’s application is spot on. That you would consider their love for Christ as hatred for their neighbor is actually mentioned in Luke 14. Be careful. Peace at any price is not peace at all.

      • S. Daniel Owens May 19, 2015 at 10:06 am #

        Peace at any price is not peace? Neither is making a desolation. (That’s how the Romans did it.) Let’s be honest: this strand of thinking only seeks to make homosexuals as being deviant or wrong. If you want to it to be that way in the Church, fine. But, please, don’t think being prosecuted is the same as being persecuted.

        • Brett Cody May 19, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

          Persecution can take the form of prosecution. Quit playing word games.

        • Brian Holland May 20, 2015 at 5:54 pm #

          Homosexual behavior is deviant and wrong. Scripture is clear that it’s a abomination. To be ashamed of that is to be ashamed of what the Word actually says.

          • S. Daniel Owens May 20, 2015 at 9:40 pm #

            That may be clear to you but that is not the argument. The argument is whether or not God is offended by selling a cake for a gay wedding. Support that assertion.

  5. Alistair Robertson May 18, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

    Are you aware of Craig Keener’s interpretation of the passage? I’m not sure that he’d agree that the baker et al can be indentified as “the least of these” but in a piece he wrote some time ago, he certainly does not think that the poor are either.

    • Denny Burk May 18, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

      Yes, I’m familiar with Keener’s commentary on Matthew. He’s one of the commentators who highlights Gray’s work, as I mentioned above. On the interpretation of “the least of these,” Keener says this:

      “But in the context of Jesus’ teachings, especially in the context of Matthew (as opposed to Luke), this parable probably addresses not serving the poor on the whole but receiving the gospel’s messengers.”

      -Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p. 605

  6. Dal Bailey May 18, 2015 at 7:09 pm #

    I agree Dr. Burk, it’s a great study. But using three people who were rejecting people based on their sexuality, is not “Spreading the word”. If so, they are the poorest examples possible.

    Where in their actions were they testifying to the love of Christ and showing love to their fellow man?

    All I saw was three people spitting on those who were different.

  7. Joe Blankenship May 19, 2015 at 1:33 am #

    Denny, I haven’t followed any of the Twitter discussion you mentioned around your previous post so I may be off base and if so please excuse my ignorance…but my questions and several I read had nothing to do with your interpretation of the passage but the inference from the title you assigned to the post. It just seemed weird and forced into the text. The florist, baker, photographer don’t seem to fit any of the three categories Gray mentions as possibilities. I agree they have the right and arguably the duty to make the decisions they made but how does that make them “the least of these” instead of the inner city poor the summit was speaking about who would include some Christians among their group?

    Your responses have only defended the exegetical position you took with the text but I haven’t seen (perhaps you have and I missed it) anything explaining the title or how those groups fit what Jesus was talking about in feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or visiting the prisoner….

    As always thankful for your love for God’s Word and His people

  8. Joe Blankenship May 20, 2015 at 1:12 am #

    Thanks for the answer – I can’t follow your logic on why you place the florist in “the least of these” and exclude the poor referred to in the summit who have many witnesses for Christ among them but I trust your motives and wisdom. As for the textual interpretation of “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.’

    If the plain sense makes sense seek no other sense. – sure seems to make sense that the people who were hungry, thirsty, without clothes would include the poor. trying to read well. Blessings

  9. Brian Holland May 21, 2015 at 12:50 am #

    Ridiculous non-sense, and of course you didn’t deal with the substance of my argument. You just dismissed me with condescension, but my wife is black. More importantly she’s a conservative (in every sense of the word) Christian, and she’s a history major. Insult all you want, but it only exposes how weak your argument really is. I am honored whenever I get called racist by the true racists on the Left.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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