Yesterday during the panel discussion at the Poverty Summit, I noticed a repeated biblical allusion to the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40, 46). I think every speaker on the panel—including President Obama—used the phrase “least of these” to refer to our fellow citizens who live in poverty and who need help. This is how the phrase is commonly understood, and so it wasn’t a surprise to hear the panelists speak this way. The phrase stood out to me because I recently delivered a sermon to my church on this very text from Matthew’s Gospel (download here or listen below).
It turns out that the panelists’ use of this phrase is a classic case of right doctrine, wrong text. Yes, the Bible teaches about our obligation to care for the poor (e.g., Prov. 19:17). But contrary to popular belief, “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40 is not talking generically about our obligation to care for the poor and needy. We know this because the terms “least of these” and “my brothers” appear elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, and in each case the terms specifically refer to Jesus’ disciples who have been sent out into the world to preach the gospel.
For example, do you remember what Jesus said when his mother and brothers came to visit him?
“Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
In this text, “brothers” is not a generic description of people created in the image of God. Jesus reserves the term “brothers” for those who are his disciples—those who believe and obey his word. And what are these”brothers” doing? They are preaching Jesus’ message.
In Matthew 10:7, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel of “the kingdom of heaven.” They are supposed to preach from house to house. They are supposed to give a greeting of peace to anyone who receives them. They are to shake the dust off their feet when someone does not receive them. Why? Because when people receive Jesus’ messengers, it’s a sign that they are receiving Jesus’ message. When people reject Jesus’ messengers, it’s a sign that they are rejecting Jesus’ message. Jesus says it this way:
He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me… And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones [cf. ‘the least of these’ in 25:40, 45] even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward (Matthew 10:40-42).
Likewise, in Matthew 18, Jesus refers to his disciples three times as “little ones” (vv. 6, 10, 14) with a term closely related to “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40, 46. So when Jesus talks about feeding, clothing, and caring for the “least of these” in Matthew 25:40, he’s talking about his disciples. And he’s saying that if you mistreat them, it’s like mistreating him–which should be no surprise to us because we are his body. Anyone who rejects Jesus’ disciples by mistreating them is rejecting Jesus. In short, how you treat Jesus’ disciples reveals how you treat Jesus. How you have received Jesus’ messengers shows how you have received Jesus’ message. Your works will reveal whether you have believed the gospel or not. And your works will bear witness either for you or against you at the judgment.
In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says,
21 Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.
22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
As far as Jesus is concerned, it is your works, not your words, that reveal who you really are. And that is why at the final judgment, your works will be brought in. And they will either bear witness that you have experienced the grace of God. Or they will not. And God will assign your place in eternity based on whether or not you have received the grace of Christ.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I like Christ. I just don’t like Christians.” Jesus says that if you don’t like his disciples—if you reject them—you are rejecting Him. There is no version of Christianity that allows you to follow Christ while mistreating His body. And it won’t matter how much you profess your love for Christ if you reject and mistreat his body. What you do with Christ’s people will tell everything that needs to be told about you at the judgment.
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. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.
In the last day, all the people who thought they could get away with mistreating Jesus’ brothers and sisters are going to come face to face with reality. They are going to come face to face with their judge. And they are going to find out what justice is. And they won’t be taunting or mocking. They are going to be crying out for the mountains to fall on them to shield them from the Lamb of God come in judgment (Rev. 6:16-17). But there won’t be a mountain big enough or a hole deep enough for them to hide in. Jesus will arise as a dread champion for his people. And he will close the mouths of the scoffers and the persecutors once and for all.
These are the cosmic realities indicated by the “least of these.” I doubt that many of the people at the Poverty Summit were thinking in these terms. But these are the terms that we all need to reckon with because they are the terms of scripture. In the last day, the world will see that the wrong side of history will be to the left of Jesus. And what side you stand on will be determined by how you treated “the least of these.”
The good news is that Jesus offers mercy even to his enemies. If you have been at odds with the “least of these,” there is time to get this right. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, and he has been raised from the dead to offer us eternal life. We receive this gift of salvation simply by repenting from sin and trusting in Christ. That invitation of mercy is open to everyone reading this—including those who have mistreated the least of these.
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
-1 Timothy 1:13-16
UPDATE (May 15, 2015)
I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback since posting this article earlier this week. In light of that, here are three clarifications that I hope are helpful.
1. The interpretation that I have argued for here is not an outlier. Christianity Today recently published an article interpreting the “least of these” just as I have above. Justin Taylor blogged the very same interpretation a couple years ago. There are countless others who interpret “the least of these” to be a reference to Jesus’ disciples (i.e., Christians). This interpretation has an impressive pedigree among commentators both contemporary and ancient. But don’t take my word for it:
“That the ‘siblings’ are here ‘disciples’ is the majority view in church history and among contemporary New Testament scholars.”
-Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 606.
“The majority view throughout church history has taken them to be some or all of Christ’s disciples.”
-Craig Blomberg, Matthew, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 377.
“There is a long and noble interpretation in the history of the church that the parable of the sheep and the goats refers not to the needy in general but to the persecuted church, or to persecuted missionaries, or to persecuted followers of Jesus… This is what is at work in the parable of the sheep and goats, not general compassion for the poor (however important that might be).”
-Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014), 121.
“By far the best interpretation is that Jesus’ ‘brothers’ are his disciples… The fate of the nations will be determined by how they respond to Jesus’ followers, who, ‘missionaries’ or not, are charged with spreading the gospel and do so in the face of hunger, thirst, illness, and imprisonment. Good deeds done to Jesus’ followers, even the least of them, are not only works of compassion and morality but reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself. Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself.”
-D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in Matthew & Mark, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 583.
“There is overwhelming evidence that this expression does not refer to everyone who is suffering, but to Jesus’ followers who are suffering. The emphasis is not on generic compassion (as important as that is elsewhere), but on who has shown compassion to the followers of Jesus who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick, or in prison.”
-D. A. Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006).
“‘My brothers,’ makes it almost certain that the statement refers not to human beings in general but rather to brothers and sisters of the Christian community.”
-Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, WBC (Dallas, TX: Word, 1995), p. 744.
2. The rest of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is clear about our obligation to care for the poor in general. I am not disputing that point. On the contrary, I affirm it. I am simply arguing that the term “least of these” is not a reference to poor people in general. But just because the “least of these” isn’t a reference to poor people in general doesn’t negate what the Bible says elsewhere about the poor.
“He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, And He will repay him for his good deed” (Prov. 19:17).
“But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14).
I am not arguing that we have less of an obligation to care for the poor. I’m arguing that the “least of these” in Matthew 25:40 is commonly misunderstood.
3. I originally wrote above that the Greek term for “least” in Matthew 25:40 is the same word that is used for “little” in Matthew 10:42. Some readers have pointed out that the underlying Greek terms are actually not the same word. That is both correct and not correct. The terms relate to one another in the same way that “best” and “good” relate to one another. The former is the superlative of the latter. Likewise, the Greek term translated as “least” (elachistos) in Matthew 25:40 is the superlative of “little” (mikros) from Matthew 10:42. Yes the words are etymologically distinct, but they both often appear under the same entry in the lexica. See for example Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VI:648 or Louw & Nida, 79.125. That is why I originally said that they were the same word. I was trying to state the matter simply without getting too deep into the weeds with the Greek. Having said that, the point does nothing to undermine the overall exegesis. Still, in order to remove any unnecessary stumbling block from the argument, I have lightly edited above to accommodate the feedback I have received.
UPDATE (May 18, 2015)
Many readers have objected that my interpretation of “the least of these” is a historical novelty. In a separate post, I point readers to evidence showing that the interpretation offered above reflects the “predominant” view of “the least of these” throughout church history: “The predominant view of ‘the least of these’ in church history.”
UPDATE (May 19, 2015)
Mike Cosper is a faithful brother and a pastor at a sister church here in Louisville. I have great respect for him, his church, and their ministry. He has raised a number of concerns in a recent blog post on his website. I think it’s important to take this kind of good-faith pushback seriously, so here are some responses to some of the concerns he raises.
1. “[Burk] noticed an exegetical error made by opponents in the culture war and pounced.” I don’t view all of the panelists as my “opponents in the culture war.” Clearly, that would not be the case for a panel that includes Arthur Brooks (who is also in print talking about the “least of these” this way). The correction I’m calling for applies to both sides of the culture war. The panel showed that people on both sides of the political spectrum sometimes misinterpret this phrase. Until recently, I did too! So it was not my aim to rebuke the panelists for misinterpreting the “least of these.” I only cited the panel because it was a recent example of how widespread this particular misinterpretation is. Previous attempts to clarify this common mistake haven’t broken through (CT, Justin Taylor, D. A. Carson, and more). I was hoping that citing a high-profile public event where folks from both sides of the political spectrum were misinterpreting the “least of these” might move the needle a little.
2. “Burk reinforced the image of Evangelicals as obsessed with abortion and homosexuality.” I write a lot about these issues as they are a big part of my work as a professor of biblical studies and ethics. I also have a pastoral concern that people in the pew are growing foggy in their convictions on these things—especially millennials. But I would also add that the sexual revolutionaries are the ones driving the culture war at this point. They are the ones pressing for Christians to either abdicate their witness or exit the public square. Christians are not going to be able to avoid conflict over these issues by talking less about them. Louie Giglio’s heroic work against human trafficking didn’t protect him from the culture war. The culture war came to him. No amount of crusading against poverty (which I support) will protect us from criticism either. The culture warriors will be gunning for us for as long as we hold on to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. To steal a phrase from Ross Douthat, “the image of Evangelicals as obsessed with abortion and homosexuality” is a conceit of the left, not a faithful description of evangelical conviction.
3. “I object strongly, vehemently, to the phrase, ‘not the poor.’ It is sloppy at best, and cheap political point-scoring at worst… To say ‘not the poor but the Christian baker’ etc. is to obscure a plain reading of the passage.” I disagree that the phrase is “sloppy.” And I would argue that the “plain reading” of the text supports the case I’ve made above. Matthew 25:31-46 does not mention “the poor.” Jesus does in fact mention “the poor” elsewhere in Matthew (Mt. 11:5; 19:21; 26:11), but he does not access that term in Matthew 25. Why? The reason is that Jesus is not dealing with poverty or the poor per se in Matthew 25:31-46. He’s trying to connect his words in Matthew 25 to what he’s already said about his disciples’ mission in Matthew 10. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel but tells them not to take along extra money or clothes but to rely on their hearers to support their mission (Mt. 10:9-10). In other words, those who receive Jesus’ message will be clothing and feeding his messengers. They will also be visiting them when they are thrown into prison and clothing and feeding them there as well. Matthew 25 is a sober warning to those who fail to clothe and feed and care for Christ’s messengers. It’s also a warning to those who would mistreat Christ’s messengers. I would argue that is the “plain reading” of the text. To say that this text is about “the poor” misses all of that and is potentially very misleading.
4. “Burk’s articulation seems to deliberately exclude the poor, and that is problematic.” I am only trying to articulate what the text is saying, and Mike concedes that he agrees with my interpretation. So unless I’ve misunderstood him, his interpretation would “exclude the poor” as well. But perhaps he means that my articulation excludes an implication related to the poor? I don’t know. But even there, there is no obvious implication for “the poor” in general if my interpretation is correct (which Mike says it is). The obvious implication would relate to the treatment of Jesus’ messengers. It’s worth mentioning that many commentators see an intentional link between “all nations” in Matthew 25 and the “all nations” in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. That would lend further support to the idea that the implications of Matthew 25 are connected to those people carrying out the Great Commission.
5. Mike also raises questions about the timing of my post—whether I should have brought up the misinterpretation of “the least of these” in a conversation about poverty. I don’t know how to answer this one. I can see good people coming to different conclusions about that. I had hoped that what I wrote was respectful and made clear that Christians have a biblical obligation to care for the poor. But just because my conscience was clear in writing doesn’t mean I’m right (1 Cor. 4:4). In any case, I’m sure I can grow in wisdom, winsomeness, and persuasion. And I will be praying for the grace of God to do just that.
Thanks for the interaction, Mike! –Proverbs 27:17