Christianity,  Theology/Bible

The “least of these” are not the poor but the Christian baker, photographer, and florist

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


  • Sandra Stewart

    Denny I think you have it backward, Never once did Jesus condone discrimination and to take a verse out of its context is unconscionable.

  • Darius T

    It’s always annoyed me how many people, including pastors and Christians, apply “least of these” and “these little ones” to generic poor people. This is a superb post.

    • Chris Ryan

      You’ll note that many people often use this verse as a basis for the Pro Life movement saying, “The unborn are the least of us”. This exposition undercuts that claim.

  • James Detwiler

    The world is not worthy of such “little ones”.

    See John Piper’s exposition of Hebrews, specifically the sermon entitled “Faith to Be Strong and Faith to Be Weak”.

    Piper says:

    “Those who love God more than life and suffer willingly awaiting something better than what this earth can offer, are God’s great gifts to the world. Look with me at verse 37b and 38, ‘. . . they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute [no promise of preppy blouses or cool slacks], afflicted, ill-treated (men [people] of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.’ What does it mean that the world was not worthy of these obscure, destitute, unsightly, seemingly-cursed people? What does that mean – the world was not worthy of them? It means they were a gift to the world and the world does not deserve it.

    Many things in this life are utterly opposite from the way they seem. And here is one of them. When the precious children of God are permitted to suffer and be rejected and mistreated and go destitute, afflicted and ill-treated, God is giving a gift to the world. He is gracing the world. He is shedding his love abroad in the world. Because in those who suffer and die in the unshakable assurance of hope in God, the world is given a message and a picture: ‘The Lord himself is better than life. Turn, O turn and believe.’

    Who would have thought it – that the suffering are a gift to the world?

    O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)”

  • joeblankenship

    I don’t think many arguing your position would amen Jonathon Edwards when He said,” Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms and in a more peremptory (beyond doubt, irrefutable, incontrovertible) and urgent manner than the command of giving to the poor. – Jonathon Edwards

  • joeblankenship

    The above quote is in reference to Luke 6:20-26 on caring for the poor. He was saying nothing was more clear and indisputable than a Christian’s call to care for the poor. It is not a commitee’s job within the church or the job of inner city churches but the indisputable mark of all Christians according to Edwards

  • joeblankenship

    Certainly many of the poor that were referred to our professing Christians like the baker and florist right? Why the distinction?

    • Denny Burk

      I’m not following your question, Joe. I’m not disputing that the Bible teaches us to care for the poor. I affirm that message as it is taught from a variety of Old and New Testament texts. I’m simply saying that the “least of these” in Matthew 25:40 specifically refers to Christ’s disciples, not to the poor in general.

      • James Bradshaw

        So what are you supposed to do when you encounter someone in need? Ask them if they’ve accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior first? That may not be sufficient, you know. They could be Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses or some heretical variant of Christianity. You might have to administer a thorough theological exam before giving them anything.

        • Gus Nelson

          James: No one is saying that. Are you even vaguely aware of how many Christians have shown up again and again at disaster sites bringing food and supplies and asked absolutely nothing in return of the people they were helping? This happens all the time around the world. The Southern Baptist Convention, in fact, runs one of the largest relief agencies in the country (perhaps in the world – I don’t know the numbers). Nobody asks any theological questions, unless you consider “would you like some food?” a theology quiz.

          • James Bradshaw

            Gus, that Christians help non-Christians is not in dispute. Denny is saying, however, that there is no moral obligation to do so. Christians are only obliged to help other Christians, at least according to his interpretation. I’m just asking how this is supposed to work.

            Either way, I’ve come to have little regard for extremists on either side of this issue. If you’re going to sue someone for not baking you a cake, you’re a petty and vindictive individual. If you’re eager to see someone tortured for all eternity for demanding you bake them a cake, you’re an even more pathetic human being.

            • Denny Burk

              No, James. That is not what I am saying. Christians have an obligation to care for the poor in general. There is no dispute about that. I think we can all agree that the Bible teaches that. This conversation is about the meaning of Matthew 25:40.

            • Gus Nelson

              James: I agree with the general sentiment of your second paragraph although I don’t think I would have worded it quite the way you did. 🙂 Denny clearly says that Christians have an obligation to help the poor and cites Proverbs 19:17, so I don’t agree with your first paragraph. Many Christians do acts of charity for others with no thought of reward or recognition regardless of the person’s theological disposition because they understand it’s part of the Christian lifestyle and moral obligation.

  • Joe Blankenship

    You seem to be indicating that the poor spoken of by Obama and others are not the least of these Jesus is speaking about and that the baker and florist are the least of these Jesus is talking about and “if” one accepts the position in Matthew 25 that it is exclusively referring to poor Christians only on what basis do you make that not thee poor they are referring to? There are a lot of poor Christian brothers and sisters impacted by the economic policies and police brutality and discrimination that the summit seems to address. I Guess I am just missing any point to your application. But thankful for all you do

    • Denny Burk

      The post is not about the merits of the summit. As far as the summit is concerned, I hope that conservatives and liberals can find some common ground on public policies to help alleviate poverty. I really hope that happens.

      I referenced the panel discussion because the speakers referred to the “least of these” a number of times. And they did so in a way that misunderstands what that text is about. I didn’t mean it as a major rebuke to the speakers. I think it is a common misunderstanding.

      My main point was to clarify what is an often misunderstood text. The final judgment will be based in part on how people treated Christ’s emissaries. Jesus will cast into hell those who treat his disciples and their message with contempt.

  • Joe Blankenship

    I don’t think the text should be so narrowly defined BUT it wouldn’t have gotten a response if your title didn’t seem to imply that the baker photographer and florist were Christians that should be included and the poor aren’t Christians. That just seemed incredibly arbitrary

  • Brian MacArevey

    This is too simplistic a reading of Matt. 25. Its really a both/and, not an either/or. The least of these, in other words, are poor people and Jesus’ disciples. The problem comes when we fail to factor in that being a disciple of Matthew’s Jesus did not necessitate assent to a given set of doctrines about Jesus, and further, that Matthew’s Jesus would never have imagined (or tolerated) wealthy people remaining wealthy and being one of his disciples. So no, the baker, the photographer and the florist are not “the least of these”, even if they might appear that way to those of us who have made doctrine, rather than solidarity with the poor, the principle litmus test for determining the legitimacy of one’s faith.

    • Roy Fuller

      Thank you. Not only is Burk’s reading too simplistic, it is also self-serving, in that it furthers his political cause of the persecuted florists, baker, etc. It is also offensive, in that equating the type of “persecution” faced by conservative evangelicals in America with examples of Christians around the world who face physical threats up to and including death.

        • Lauren Bertrand

          Everybody wants to be persecuted…both the political left and the political right love being victims, because it ensures them of moral high ground, and it exculpates them from negative consequences to actions that, in any other context, would be shameful.

            • Brian MacArevey

              I’m thinking you missed her point, Chad. Maybe had Lauren said, “everyone thinks they are being persecuted” and they “love to play the victim”, you would have understood what she was getting at better. Unless I missed something, I also think that “everyone” probably referred to “everyone” involved in these types of discussions. And she is at least right in noting that both LGBT sisters and brothers and the Christian sisters and brothers who side with the photographer, the baker, and the florist are all claiming to be persecuted victims, and that this persecution complex “ensures them of moral high ground, and it exculpates them from negative consequences to actions that, in any other context, would be shameful.” This isn’t generalizing at all. It is an astute observation.

              • C. M. Granger

                Thanks for the clarification Brian, but the photographer, baker, and florist actually are being persecuted for taking a stand upon their religious convictions. No LGBT person is being persecuted by having to seek services elsewhere.

                • Ron Goodman

                  The photographer, baker, and florists in question aren’t being “persecuted”, but being held to account for violating laws of the states where they live. In most parts of the country, their conduct would be legal.

                  • C. M. Granger

                    They’re being persecuted for living by a tenet of their faith which conflicts with the laws of the state. They’re being threatened with loss of livelihood and economic hardship. That’s a far cry from simply seeking services elsewhere

                    • Brian MacArevey

                      When you consider these issues, Chad, does the past history of our nation ever enter into your mind? Your argument here is close to the sorts of arguments that segregationists made. Yes, in our day, LGBT people could go elsewhere. But if we lived in a Christian America? They’d be hard-pressed to find a place to go. Hence, no one wants a Christian America. It’s also why libertarian notions of a completely “free market” will never work. the market is always biased against the weak and plays into the hands of the cultural and economically powerful.

                    • C. M. Granger

                      We don’t live in a Christian America, so your point is irrelevant. No one should be forced to violate their conscience with regard to moral (not racial) behavior. It doesn’t matter what arguments segregationalists made in the past. This is a different subject.

                    • Brian MacArevey

                      Whether this is moral or natural is up for debate though; in this country at least. And appeals to scripture alone aren’t going to convince non-Christians in a non- “Christian America” that this is simply a matter of morality, and not one of nature. I left the comment you responded to here a while ago, but I said more related to Christian America a few comments down (after you responded to Ron). You can read more there. My point is far from irrelevant if our nation’s past is to be considered at all. I realize its convenient for you to ignore it, however. Basically, the government doesn’t have to be explicitly Christian for there to be a Christian cultural hegemony in America.

              • C. M. Granger

                No, it’s quite clear that the power of money and culture is being used against the photographer, baker, and florist, in addition to law. I’m certainly not underestimating it.

                • Brian MacArevey

                  My point had to do with Ron’s point about privilege, by which I believe he meant something like the white, straight, Christian male hegemony which has held sway over this country for its entire existence, and still does to a large extent. I wouldn’t disagree however that the tide is turning to some extent. Still though, I count neither of the sides in this debate as “the least of these”. And I think that laws that enshrine the right to segregate are terribly unjust. They give the dominant culture the legal right to act unjustly. This is how segregationist culture used the law. This is how conservative Evangelicals want to use the law. And it could backfire, given the cultural shift away from heteronormativity.

      • Randall Seale

        @ Roy Fuller; you posted:

        “Thank you. Not only is Burk’s reading too simplistic, it is also self-serving, in that it furthers his political cause of the persecuted florists, baker, etc. It is also offensive, in that equating the type of “persecution” faced by conservative evangelicals in America with examples of Christians around the world who face physical threats up to and including death.”

        To stand with our brothers and sisters while their livelihood is taken from them is not political self-serving. It is obedience to our Lord. To claim that the “least of these” as employed in Matthew includes non-followers of Jesus would be a flawed interpretation.

        Persecution, biblically understood, may occur along a spectrum from verbal to financial to physical (see Mt. 5:11-12, Heb. 10:32-34). No doubt, believers in other nations are persecuted to extents far greater than we know in America. But that doesn’t diminish the struggle that some are already enduring here. Jesus treated it as “persecution.”

        The people on the Poverty Summit panel (which I did not listen to) were apparently using the Matthew’s vocabulary, not his dictionary. If so, who is really using Scripture for self-serving political purposes?

        What is (but no longer should be) surprising is that Denny writes a straightforward exegesis of Scripture, applies it to current circumstances, and is rejected as “too simplistic,” “political,” and “self-serving.”

        “Blessed are you when people . . . falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Great post Denny, blessed brother. Really appreciate concluding it with a Gospel appeal.

    • C. M. Granger

      Since Matthew’s Jesus shouldn’t be isolated from the rest of Scripture, it hardly follows that He would not tolerate the wealthy remaining wealthy and being a disciple. There are several counter examples one could cite. Although certainly such a one is to be a wise and generous steward of what he or she has been given. Being a disciple of Jesus does necessitate certain beliefs about Him, otherwise Scripture is largely a long record of myth and mush.

      The baker, photographer, and florist are part of “the least of these” because they are the common, nondescript, economically-intimidated few who are being persecuted for taking a stand for what they believe is true, right, and pleasing to God.

      • Brian MacArevey

        By all means, put Matthew’s Jesus in conversation with the rest of the Bible. But Matt. 25 is the text that is at issue. And we can’t use the rest of scripture to blunt or ignore Matthew’s radical point. I agree that being a disciple does necessitate certain beliefs about him, just not the one’s that Burk (or you) presume. Standing with Jesus in his radical solidarity with the poor of Israel is that which must be believed, and more importantly, practiced, if we want to follow Matthew’s Jesus (or any Jesus of the Gospels, for that matter). The baker, the photographer, and the florist are not amongst the least of these, because the least of these, in Matthew, are impoverished (first century Israelites, to be exact). To try to detach the notion of discipleship from poverty in Matthew is to do significant damage to the text, and I would argue to the gospel itself. Personally, I think this whole debate is (for the most part) the meaningless chatter and political posturing of the privileged, American elite. I think that Jesus would probably render it all unto Caesar, and get on with the gospel mission.

        • C. M. Granger

          The photographer, baker, florist, are hardly a part of the privileged American elite. They’re small business owners, not Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

          Do you equate solidarity with the poor to giving away our money and possessions?

          And what beliefs about Jesus do you assert must be held to be a disciple?

          • Brian MacArevey

            That’s a sneaky move. But Gates and Buffet are not the standard bearers for what it means to be a part of the privileged, American elite. Relative to them, of course the photographer, the baker, and the florist appear nearly impoverished, as does basically every American citizen. But relative to most of the rest of the world, including strong numbers of other American citizens (not to mention those persons whom Matthew’s Jesus called his family and friends) they are excessively wealthy.

            Believe it or not, poor actually means poor in the Gospels. Not poor by American standards, but really impoverished. To equate middle to upper-middle class Americans with the poor and persecuted in the Gospels would be hilarious if it weren’t so blasphemous.

            If I were to limit my definition of solidarity with the poor to this discussion about the Gospel of Matthew, I would say yes. It is “giving away our money and possessions”. Matthew never says anything different. While a more nuanced discussion could be had concerning other NT texts, I would still say that solidarity with the poor in the NT is never less than being a community that defeats oppression and poverty by doing anything and everything we can (short of violence) to ensure that the poor and oppressed (in and out of the church) have access to everything that the most wealthy in the church do. In other words, a wealthy Christian is an oxymoron, so long as there are poor people in the world. And again, wealth can’t be defined relative to American standards (like comparing small business owners to Gates and Buffet). It must be defined in relation to the poorest of the poor in the world (like how much you and I have to what the poor in the third world have).

            As for beliefs, everything I could say would be a spelling out of Jesus’ authority and praxis. Metaphysical speculations regarding the relationship between the Father and the Son, atonement theories, and things of that nature are secondary due to their ambivalence and essentially motivational character.

            • C. M. Granger

              I’ve made no sneaky move, we’re talking about Americans, therefore I’m using American standards.

              If solidarity with the poor requires the relinquishing of your wealth and possessions are you living by this standard?

              As far as I can tell from Scripture, Trinity, Lord, and Christ are the beliefs required to be a disciple of Jesus.

              • Brian MacArevey

                But American standards are not God’s, are they? I just don’t think that we can ever measure poverty relative to the top. Its too subjective. People not having food, clothing and shelter is a much more concrete place to begin to understand just how wealthy one is. Certainly, the wealth of Gates and Buffet is far more hideous than the wealth of small business owners. But let’s not pretend that we are poor or persecuted when we own homes, never really worry about eating a meal, always have clean clothes, and in the case of basically every business owner, have servants to work our fields.

                Whether or not I am living by this standard isn’t the question. Obviously I am not. But I’m not going to ignore what Matthew and the rest of the NT say in order to make myself feel comfortable. I’d rather read the text correctly, and try to rationalize and justify my failure to conform to it, than I would redefine and blunt Matthew’s call to discipleship so as to altogether avoid and ignore his radical call on my life. If that means I’m not a faithful disciple, so be it. But at least I am allowing the text to lure me through conviction towards Christlikeness; which is impossible once we water down the call.

                While I do affirm “Trinity, Lord, and Christ”, I think that these terms/beliefs are too ambiguous to serve as markers of the disciple. I’m guessing you would agree if pressed? I’m pretty sure that obedience to “Lord” will look significantly different for you and I. Not completely different, but different in some irreconcilable ways. And I’m presuming that your doctrinal generosity would not be extended to say, a gay Christian who is sexually active? You may say that that is a denial of “Lord”, but that would be begging the question. It’s always going to come down to orthopraxy. And when discussing Jesus’ praxis, we can’t disregard his economic, class, and power criticisms, which stood at the center of Jesus’ ministry.

                • C. M. Granger

                  Brian, I’m not sure what you mean by “God’s standard” of poverty. Is that defined by 1st century Jewish cultural and economic terms as opposed to 21st century American terms?

                  If we’re starting with those who don’t have their basic needs met, then most Americans are apparently elite and therefore what is there really to say? I guess the verses in question don’t apply to many here in the States.

                  By the way, wealth is not hideous, nor is it sinful to be wealthy. Misuse of wealth is sinful and hideous though. Are you now a Marxist?

                  It seems odd that you would lay a standard down as Jesus’ call to all Christians, then admit you don’t abide by that standard. That’s a case of “do as I say, but don’t do as I do” wouldn’t you say? Do you have to live like Mother Teresa to be obedient to Christ? I think that’s a difficult case for you to make.

                  I don’t extend doctrinal generosity to sexually active LGBT persons any more than I do to adulterous spouses, fornicators, or the incestuous. Without repentance, they’re condemned and certainly have not surrendered themselves up to Christ’s authority and lordship.

                  • Christiane Smith

                    ” Do you have to live like Mother Teresa to be obedient to Christ? ”

                    I think the answer is ‘YES’, a resounding “YES” . . . and I say this as I, too, sadly walk away.
                    The idea of giving up everything is something we cannot fathom, until we begin to understand what we are receiving in exchange . . .
                    I suppose what Mother Theresa did had something to do with ‘love’, and that it may not be so easy as we think, and it may cost us more than we think we can give of our substance, of our Earthly material ‘security’, of OUR time, of OUR talents . . . “OUR”? . . . when all we are and all we have comes to us from God?

                    and then one day, toward the end of our lives, we see it more clearly . . . that in giving, we were receiving . . .
                    ‘live like Mother’ ? with her bare, badly bruised feet visible to be seen under the flag of India on her catapult at her funeral? Why? When I can purchase instead a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes for only six hundred dollars?
                    ‘live like Mother’ ?
                    A good question for all of us. And hopefully all of our honest responses of excuse may be tinged with something of sadness; and for some of us an even deeper regret for what we have wasted instead.

                  • Jonathan Bee

                    What about feminists? Do you give your money to them do you support feminist pastors? ( Chandler , Greear atc) if so , you are just as hypocritical and inconsistent as anyone else…

                  • Brian MacArevey

                    I was just saying that America’s standards of justice and equity are not God’s. You brought up American standards to justify your comparison of middle to upper-middle class Americans to Gates and Buffet. But I struggle to find ways to justify referring to the former party as “poor”. They certainly look nothing like what the Bible means when it uses the term. And they are certainly fat more wealthy than most people in the world today.

                    Yes. Most Americans are elite. But the passages in question can apply today. We Americans would just need to start seeing ourselves as the rich rather than the poor, the goats rather than the sheep. Thus we (Christians included!) would need to do what Jesus calls the rich and the goats to do; repent, sell everything you own and follow me, feed, heal, and visit the poor and oppressed, and take up your (very literal) cross.

                    I agree that wealth is not in and of itself evil. However it is evil when poverty is present. And since there are poor people in the world, the wealth of Gates and Buffet is especially hideous and evil. All hording of wealth in the face of poverty is a misuse of wealth.

                    I already admitted my failure to conform to Jesus. Would it be better to change Jesus’ standards, and deceive myself into believing that I am faithful? This is an even worse form of hypocrisy, in my opinion. Further, I don’t think that this call is to individualism. I don’t believe that the NT demands that we bare this burden all on our own. Maybe we wouldn’t all need to be Mother Teresa if more of us were faithful? If the church were more willing to heed Jesus’ call, and I still refused to heed, I would have far less of an excuse. Would I obey if that were the case? At this point in my life, I’m not sure. I hope so, but I won ‘t pretend it wouldn’t be difficult.

                    But I never actually did demand that anyone “do as I say”. My concerns in this thread is to get to a right interpretation of Matt. 25, and to argue that middle to upper-middle class American Christians can not be regarded as “my brothers”. People can do what they want with that information. But no one need fear the judgment that Denny is calling down upon all (rich or poor) who are “persecuting” the “poor and oppressed” American Evangelicals. All of us Americans do have reasons to fear, but we will be judged in relation to how we have treated “the least of these”; at least according to Matt. 25.

                    Well, I’m glad that you admitted the last part. But I guess this means that you demand more than belief in Trinity, Lord and Christ in order to be a disciple? Or you at least agree with me that these terms are ambiguous apart from further interrogation of the Bible? And that apart from more clear definitions of praxis, Christian doctrines are meaningless abstractions?

                    • C. M. Granger

                      It would be better to recognize what Christ has called us to and then by His grace to follow Him. He has called us to be generous, faithful, and a wise steward of what He has blessed us with. That does not necessarily translate into relinquishing everything we have.

                      I demand no more than Scripture does about believing in Trinity, Lord and Christ. You can’t be consciously living in sin and claim Jesus as Lord and Christ. It may come out of your mouth, but that profession would be betrayed by your life.

                    • Brian MacArevey

                      But you are begging the question,Chad. People who believe in the authority of the Bible disagree with your interpretations of what Trinity, Lord, and Christ mean from an ethical perspective. “Scripture says” is not an argument. If your goal is to persuade people, you might try a different approach. Your word alone isn’t going to be enough to convince thinking people that your view is the correct one.

                      And further, this post is about Matthew 25, and I would love if you would make a case from Matthew specifically for your claims. Where does Matthew disconnect Christology from radical solidarity with the poor of Israel? And where does Matthew have Jesus commending the faithfulness of rich and powerful persons who are not directly concerned with liberating the poor and oppressed in Israel from their bondage?

                      The problem I have with what you are saying is that you seem to think that the church can be a “generous, faithful, and a wise steward” while doing the bare minimum with the power and privilege we have to alleviate the suffering of the poor. I say that this is what it means to water down and even abandon the gospel in favor of the American dream.

                      I’ll end by noting that even you can’t disconnect doctrine from praxis, even if we disagree at points concerning what orthopraxis is. My point is (and has been) that Matthew’s Jesus never disconnects any doctrine from his praxis, and his praxis can be boiled down to what I have been calling radical solidarity with Israel’s poor. This praxis permeates the Gospel. Their is not a word that isn’t consumed with this idea.

                      What I think that you (and really most proponents of some form of Christendom) have done, is you have disconnected doctrine from praxis, made the now ambiguous doctrines by themselves the authoritative markers of discipleship, and then reinserted new praxes which are consistent with Christendom and capitalism, but which bear very little resemblance to the practices of Matthew’s Jesus. This is the best explanation I can give for why what you are saying is so vastly different than the teachings of Matthew’s Gospel.

                    • C. M. Granger

                      Brian, if someone disagrees with my interpretation of what Trinity, Lord and Christ means, a case will have to be made from Scripture. What you seem to be suggesting is that behavior which is condemned every place it is mentioned is somehow consistent with a Christian profession. What doctrine is that the practice of, could you elaborate?

                    • Brian MacArevey

                      I’m not suggesting anything. I used the LGBT cause as a way to make a point that apparently you refuse to address. I haven’t stated one way or the other how I think about that topic, nor do I intend to hear. Its not the point. Matthew 25 and the least of these is what I am focused on.

                      Do you ever respond to the questions you are asked in any online thread? lol. Or do you always try to shift the discussion towards tangential topics to avoid having to speak to the real issue?

                      Which of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel of Matthew has not sold everything to follow him? Where does Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, ever lower (or rather, raise) this bar? Where does Jesus ever commend the faith of one who is not either poor already, or oriented towards the poor in Israel?

                      If you aren’t interested in talking about this, we can end it here. This is why I started commenting on this thread. I don’t want to talk about anything else.

                    • C. M. Granger

                      I’m simply responding to the topics you bring up, Brian. Would you care to re-read the thread?

                      I reject how you’ve framed the issue since “Matthew’s Jesus” is also the Jesus of the Bible. No where does the Lord require universal poverty. He had disciples who had means, Joseph of Arimatea comes to mind. For you to put that on the conscience of those seeking Christ, when you yourself don’t do what you say is required of disciples, is Pharisaical. Matt. 25 doesn’t require poverty, but generosity to even those who are considered the least in His kingdom. Where in the text is the universal call to poverty? Please explain.

                    • Randall Seale


                      Maybe I’m not following your questions but Matthew himself still had his house after he “followed Him” (see. Mt. 9:9ff). So in chronological order, Matthew followed Jesus, i.e., became His disciple while he still had his house (an apparently large enough house to host a rather large feast). I don’t think you’ve framed your second question correctly. It is not whether His disciples literally sell everything (that’s not the “bar”), it’s whether we leave everything (and that means everything) to follow Him. IOW, whatever we possessed before then, we no longer possess – it’s all at His disposal. Whether we sell or not is His call.

                      FTR, Jesus commends the faith of the Canaanite woman in Mt. 15:28. How are you seeing in Matthew’s text that she is poor or her faith is “oriented towards the poor in Israel?” Her faith is commended because of how she esteems Jesus period (‘all I need are your crumbs’). Discipleship in Matthew does not ignore the poor. It encompasses much more than that.

                      My two questions:
                      1) On what basis can discipleship in Matthew be distilled to “radical solidarity with the poor” exclusively?

                      2) In your view is it even possible that Jesus could bless and reward His sheep in the judgment for even the smallest act of kindness done to the least of His brothers? IOW, is Denny’s interpretation even possible in Matthew? ” 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).

                    • Brian MacArevey

                      As for your last comment, maybe you should be the one to do some re-reading. I realize that the “Pharisaical” point was supposed to be your rhetorical knock-down blow (especially since you’ve tried to use it twice) but it doesn’t work on me. My goal is to wash away the “moral” sand you (and Denny) have built your house on by pointing out that your propositional theology does not give you the high-ground in ethical discussions. That is what Denny’s interpretation is meant to accomplish. It is exegetically ridiculous, and morally incredible.

                      Mind you, you and Denny are the one’s asserting that you are “without sin” in this blog and the ensuing discussion. I’m just acknowledging the call and also my failure to live up to it. I’m saying we’re all in the same boat. You guys are the one’s asserting that your theological beliefs make you, for all practical purposes, superior to the rest of us. In light of Denny’s reading of the text, the rest of us all need to bow down in reverence to you and submit to your authority. But I’m the one being “Pharisaic”? HA!

                      But this is just getting too far afield for me. And clearly, you are not interested in the Gospel of Matthew. So I’ll let you take one more rhetorical swipe at me while refusing to answer my questions. Personally, I’ve had enough of the exchange. God bless!

                    • Brian MacArevey

                      Randall, I may be missing something, but I’m not seeing where it is said that Jesus eats specifically at “Matthew’s house” (I see “the house”, but not “his house” or Matt’s house”). So I’m still not seeing, in Matthew, any place where Jesus calls anyone to be his disciple, or where he spells out what it takes to get eternal life for that matter (19:16-30) that does not demand “selling everything you own”. I’m also not sure how one can “leave everything” and yet not actually leave anything. And how do you determine when Jesus is telling you to sell?

                      The Canaanite woman is an interesting case. And I would also add the Roman Centurion (8:5-13). But notice how both recognize the primacy of Israel and the authority of Israel’s King (Jesus). Plus, the woman is concerned for her demon possessed child, the soldier for his ill slave. Both of the infirmed are members of “the least”. These Gentiles, bowing before Israel’s King, begins to fulfill OT prophecy regarding the Gentiles coming to Zion to worship YHWH. Jesus commends them for both of these things (caring for “the least” and recognizing the primacy of Israel, Torah, and Israel’s God).

                      These Gentiles actually get what faithfulness to the Torah looks like, which is why Jesus applauds the faith of the woman, and says at his encounter with the soldier, “I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness”.

                      I see these stories as hints that point towards the great commission and the inclusion of the Gentiles. But they do not contradict my reading at all. If only Matthew’s Jesus’ Jewish brethren would have cared for their own sick, possessed, children, and slaves in the way that the woman and the centurion, and most importantly, Jesus did!

                      With regard to your question 2, I said in earlier comments that I think Denny is half-right, but he gets rid of the most important part. Your question 1 is to would require too extensive an answer to give in a blog thread, especially because it’s what I think the whole Gospel is about! I think it would be easier if you could point out somewhere in Matthew where discipleship is something “other than” radical solidarity with the poor (especially) in Israel. I just don’t see anything else. Thanks for the interaction!

                    • C. M. Granger

                      I have answered your questions, and asked some of my own which you have not answered. I also wasn’t taking a rhetorical swipe at you, I was pointing out the hypocrisy of requiring something of others you yourself don’t do. You seem to think that admitting you don’t live up to a (false) standard is an expression of some kind of humility. Rather, you are putting up a stumbling block to those who may be seeking the Lord by setting a bar few can reach. I also said nothing about being “without sin”, not sure where you’re trying to go there. Thanks for the interaction though.

    • Randall Seale

      @ Brian MacArevey

      What “problem”? Denny is simply exegeting a phrase in Mt. 25:40 (lit: “the brothers of me, the least”). He views the phrase as used here as referring exclusively to Christ’s followers, not the poor in general. As such, those who have lost their livelihood because of their devotion to Christ, e.g., the baker, the florist, the photographer, are rightly included among Jesus’ words in Mt. 25:40.

      FTR, I don’t think the Greek terms in Mt. 10:40-42 are the same as those in Mt. 25:40, 45.

      • Brian MacArevey

        I understand what Denny is trying to do, I’m disputing his reading. The text never actually says that the “brothers” are “those who have lost their livelihood because of their devotion to Christ”. That’s something that you are presuming that I think you would actually need to make a case for if you hope to persuade me. I would not dispute that these would be included, so actually, what you would have to do is convince me that “brothers” are limited ” exclusively to Christ’s followers”, or to “those who have lost their livelihood because of their devotion to Christ”. In Matthew, Jesus is radically oriented towards and standing in solidarity with poor and oppressed Israelites. He calls people to follow him in this specific way. The Beatitudes set forth his attitude and mission to the Israel’s impoverished, and point out the consequences of those who stand with him. For him to then exclude the poor from the blessings that he promises them in the Beatitudes, on the basis of some doctrinal standard that is never even mentioned in the Gospel, would go against the entire flow of Matthew’s entire narrative. We can’t disconnect Matthew’s Jesus from his practices. Radical solidarity with the poor is what it means to be a disciple in Matthew. The reading being propagated in this thread is an implicit rejection of Matthew’s version of discipleship.

        • Christiane Smith

          BRIAN, I agree with you, this: “Radical solidarity with the poor is what it means to be a disciple in Matthew.” But DENNY comes from another ‘branch of the family’ that may not be comfortable with the phrase ‘radical solidarity with the poor’ . . .

          after thinking about it, I suspect that those who favor Denny’s interpretation are not into the same social doctrines as those of us who understand them in the context of ‘the common good’, ‘solidarity with the poor’, and even an Orthodox context of the implications of the Incarnation . . .

          it’s not that DENNY’s wrong, but that for many of us, he doesn’t include enough into the meaning of that PARTICULAR phrase, and so we challenge him to re-examine the phrase in a different context for a more ‘complete’ meaning.

        • Randall Seale

          Mt. 25:36, 39 speak of being “in prison.” Presumably, these “brothers” (Mt. 25:40) are in prison not because of some crime committed against another citizen but because of their allegiance to our Master. Being in prison, it is fair to assume they’ve lost their livelihood. Why does Mt. 12:46-50 not convince you of whom Christ’s “brothers” were and are?

          I think you are sorely understating what it means to be a follower of Jesus in Matthew. It is much more than radical solidarity with the poor. Unbelievers can do that. Being a follower of Jesus in Matthew means nothing less than losing all there is of me for all there is of Him (Mt. 16:24ff).

          • Brian MacArevey

            “Presumably, these “brothers” (Mt. 25:40) are in prison not because of some crime committed against another citizen but because of their allegiance to our Master. ”

            This is by no means self evident. I think you are letting your own Evangelical theological framework override Matthew’s theology. There is nothing in the text that would lead us to conclude that those in prison are there due to an allegiance to Evangelical doctrines about Jesus. They are just “in prison”, and the only fitting conclusion is that they are suffering injustice. Again, this may include, but it can not be limited to people who suffer for standing with Jesus in solidarity with the poor and against the forces of injustice that have left them sick, hungry, and imprisoned.

            The only reason why anyone would want to exclude the general poor in their interpretation of Matt. 25 is if their own theology finds the fact that Jesus identifies himself with unbelievers who suffer unjustly and, as you said, that “unbelievers can do that”, troublesome. But thankfully, Matthew doesn’t share these concerns. For him, radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed in Israel is what defines discipleship (we might say its hat it means to be a believer); not Evangelical “orthodoxy”.

  • Dal Bailey

    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.

    However, the baker/florist/photog were NOT sharing Christs message. They were refusing service to people who were willing to pay for such.

  • James Stanton

    Well, I think the headline is what has made this post perhaps more controversial than it should be. It’s kind of a head-scratcher to say that the poor are not the least of these. The baker, photographer, and the florist sure do need to be defended and so do the poor. We should not elevate or diminish one over the other.

    Take a look at our politics and the dialogue. I’m sure many here can point out animus towards Christians who are standing up for religious liberty. There’s a lot of animus towards poor people too.

    Perhaps we should include the mechanics too.

  • keithkraska

    Thank you Denny for this fascinating perspective. It’s understandable that it would be jarring to what most of us have always believed, because of the vivid language Jesus uses that we assume must refer to the poor, speaking of hunger, thirst and nakedness.
    But look at the parallel to the apostle Paul’s experiences written in 2 Corinthians 11: “… in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness …” (verse 27). Matthew 25 certainly applied to him.

  • James Attebury

    I’m surprised at how many people disagree with Denny’s correct interpretation of Matthew 25. In context, “the least of these” is referring to Christ’s brothers in contrast to the goats who go into eternal punishment. The parallel to 25:40 confirms this where “my brothers” follows “the least of these.” Those who are Christ’s brothers are only those who do the will of the Father: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50).

    The reference to being “sick and in prison and you did not visit me” is not a general plea for prison reform, but a call to care for Christians who are in prison for their faith (Matt 25:43). The parallel to Hebrews 10:34 confirms this: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” These Jewish Christians were facing persecution for their faith in Christ and we are called to stand in solidarity with those who belong to Christ who are suffering for their faith (Heb 13:3; Col 4:3; Acts 26:10). Roman prisons were not like the prisons of today where they actually feed you. In order to prevent Christians from starving to death in prison, other believers had to risk their lives to bring food to them. And the only people who would bring food to a Christian in prison were other Christians and if the Roman guards were not in a good mood they could throw you into prison too and then the only way you would avoid starving to death is if other Christians risked their lives to feed you.

    • Randal Seale

      Persecution in the NT occurs along a spectrum. It may be verbal (Mt. 5:11-12, 10:26), financial (Heb. 10:34), or physical (e.g., Acts 16:22-24). But whatever its garb, it is noteworthy that Scripture regards it as persecution. So it is unbiblical to treat those in America who are being persecuted for their stand for Biblical righteousness as if their persecution doesn’t measure up. That believers in other continents are being persecuted far more severely than baker, et al. in America does not mean that it’s not persecution.

  • Thom Rowe

    Thom Rowe – Your post was forwarded to me by a college professor buddy. Thanks Denny for such an intriguing take on a verse that definitely has been appropriated by the larger culture. However I think the argument is weakened by several points:

    1. The word used in 25:40 – “elaxistos” is NOT the same used in the other passages cited. It is a rare word in the NT (used 14 times) and is used 2 other places in Matthew, 5:19 and 2:6. The other passages you cited use “mikron,” a much more common word. Matt. 10 does have elaxistos as a variant with 1 manuscript, Codex Bezae (5th to 6th c) and a few Latin manuscripts follow its lead. However given the nature of Bezae’s text (with its freedom to insert words and phrases at will) one would be hard pressed to follow the variant over the other witnesses. So the text itself does not lend authority to this interpretation in this specific way.

    2.Genre is important and this Matt. 25 passage is clearly parabolic language in keeping with the other two parables told before it. As such the thrust of the passage is on the actions taken or not taken by the two sides rather than who it was taken with or on. The passage comments on the lack of action in regards to the message of the Kingdom and preparation for it (just as the previous two parables address it). The goats did not take negative action regarding the message, they didn’t take any action at all. Using the two words “brothers (and sisters) of mine” to reinterpret the passage as centered on polity pushes the parabolic genre a little too far, in my opinion.

    3. The tone of the interpretation and comments indicate an “us” versus “them” attitude seen too often in society and the church. Not that there aren’t differences – I’m not arguing universalism here – but I’d argue Jesus gave us a better perspective, namely Matt. 5:41 – if a Roman soldier “forces you to go 1 mile, go with (him) two.” Thus, if someone asks (or forces) you to bake a cake, bake a cake and some of those delicious little meatballs they always have at weddings. Seriously though, we have to decide as a faith community, what’s more important – our rights or winning people to Christ?


    • Denny Burk


      1. Elachistos is the superlative for mikros. Go read the BDAG entry for elachistos.
      2. Even if you view this as a parable, that wouldn’t undermine the argument in any way.
      3. I wouldn’t play Jesus against himself. What he said in 5:41 is in no way at odds with 25:40. You have to affirm both.

      • Don Jackson

        Dr. Burk: I agree with your exegesis but that is not my reason for posting.

        Your blogs have long confused me in that it seems you routinely allow unbelievers and those with the shallowest understanding of scripture to post their views as fact and allow them to go unchallenged to the point that your intended message of the whole is confusing to the casual reader.

        At any rate, I wish you would answer Mr. Rowe’s last question because it seems once again many posting here do not understand the issues at hand and for that matter I seriously doubt that many American believers understand themselves.

        “Seriously though, we have to decide as a faith community, what’s more important – our rights or winning people to Christ?”

        • Thom Rowe

          well I do have a copy of Schleiermacher that I read thru at Wheaton for a class (along with Calvin’s Institutes) but, alas, it has been gathering dust on my bookcase ever since…grace and peace to all

      • Thom Rowe


        Thanks for your comments!
        Yes it is used as superlative in Classical Greek and LXX but only in 1 Cor 15:9 is it superlative in the NT. Everywhere else in NT it is elative (even cited here in BAGD as such). I recognized the tie in of the words but have to draw a distinction – Matthew’s usage doesn’t tie them together via the superlative. Are you saying they are interchangeable due to the superlative relationship? Not the slam dunk expressed above.

        My point is to not take the symbolism of the parabolic language too far. I am not ready to say it is a parable outright such as the previous two pericopes. But personally I don’t think we will be turned into goats and sheep at the final judgement. The first rule of interpreting the parabolic genre – look for the overall meaning – would point to the interplay of action/inaction not acceptance of the message/rejection of the church as theorized. And the ultimate second re-statement leaves out the argument critical “brothers of mine.”

        I agree – you can’t play Jesus or these two passages off against himself/each other. It has to be both/and. We have to build relationship with the world/share the message. I see lots of us being content with only the message side. I thought your comments led in that direction. If I set up a straw man, I apologize and look for clarification.

        I appreciate your thoughts. It would be great if you would do an SBL paper on this. Matthew’s usage of “my brothers” as an interior community referent could be very interesting, especially in light of 25 being unique to Matthew.

        Thanks for creating discussion!

    • Dal Bailey

      Thom, my goodness,you seem to have an interesting take on the “if forced yadda, yadda” Indeed your thinking is quite direct and simple. Tell me though, what part would be sharing Christ’s Message? How would they do such?

      Truthfully, I am curious. I think your reasoning is very profound in this.

      • Thom Rowe

        Dal, that would be highjacking the thread and blog so I would just say we have a responsibility to share the message in many ways through both word and deed. That has been the way of the church for the last 2000 years. If you are interested in my thoughts feel free to find me on LinkedIn and I would be glad to discuss – thanks once again to Dr. Burk for an interesting topic.

  • Tim

    I appreciate your OT reference for helping the poor. We see it in the NT as well, of course, in verses like Galatians 6:10 where it applies to those in and out of the Church who are needing help.

  • Andy McCullough

    This is why we need to interpret scripture in light of the entire bible. You’ve taken one little phrase ‘brothers’ and discounted what Jesus is saying “when I was hungry, thirsty, without home, sick, etc.” Clearly the least in the world. All throughout scripture God takes this posture with the poor, widows, orphans, foreigners living in the land and personifies himself in how we treat them. Thousands of scripture but read again one. Mal 3 and the most misquoted passage from the pulpit about giving. “You’ve robbed me” “How have we robbed you?” They neglected the storehouse tithe which was for the poor. God didn’t say you robbed the poor. he said you robbed me. God like Jesus in Matthew 25 says that how you treat the poor is the same as how to you treat Him.

  • Dee Parsons


    This is an interpretation that I have heard a number of times. So, assuming that it refers to Christians, I have a concern. In today’s churches, why is it that the elders/deacons are often comprised of anything but the “least of these?”

    So many churches boast that they have well known physician X or extremely successful businessman Y or politically well connected Atty Z as elders.

    One day, in a rich suburban Baptist church, I would love to see an elder board that includes a plumber, a janitor, or a sanitary worker. Does the Holy Spirit only give wisdom to those who are successful at achieving the American dream?

    • Christiane Smith

      “One day, in a rich suburban Baptist church, I would love to see an elder board that includes a plumber, a janitor, or a sanitary worker.”

      or maybe even a carpenter 🙂

  • Jonathan Bee

    christians are so hypocritical
    one one side they decide to send individuals who divorce willy nilly as examples of serving Christ to the world…

    and on the other hand oppose gay rights in al arenas…

    Jesus never directly addressed gay marriage but he did say he hated divorce, if christians cannot keep the commands that were verbally pronounced by christ, and can still be christian and go to heaven etc
    why should christians have to keep the command written by men, inspired by God?

    either keep both commands or none, no picking and choosing…

    • Mike Norman

      Jonathan: Scripture says only one thing about homosexuality or any sexual relationship outside of marriage between a man and a woman. It is sinful.

      God does hate divorce but He also allows for divorce in some situations. Baptist churches have traditionally judged divorce more harshly than scripture.

      When God saves a person for some reason in His wisdom He does not immediately glorify him but chooses instead to conform him to the image of the Savior by progressive sanctification. That means this side of Heaven although striving to live for the glory of God we are all sinners.

    • Diane Woerner

      Not to get off track, but people rarely see divorce as healthy and normative, but rather as the outcome of something broken. How is that comparable, then, to the current push to see homosexuality as healthy and normative?

  • Susan Brown

    Lately theologians remind me of the Pharisees that annoyed Christ so much…enough of the garbled goop…here’s what Jesus told us to do…not you or any other “church” official…
    Matthew 22:37-39
    “Jesus replied, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. and for the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. “

    • Barbara

      Indeed. And love rejoices not in iniquity, but it rejoices in the truth. Loving God while using the talents, gifts and occupations He provided in order to facilitate a celebration of that which He hates us not loving of God or of neighbor.

  • Bill Smith

    I was reading the note from my reformation study bible on Matt 25:40:

    the least of these my brothers. Christ’s disciples (10:42; 12:48, 49; 18:14), not the poor and needy in general. The judgment of the nations depends on how they respond to Christians and to the gospel (10:40–42), not only because it is through the testimony of Christians that the Gentiles can hear and believe (Rom. 10:14), but also because Christ identifies with His people. Their suffering is His suffering, and compassion shown to them is compassion shown to Him.

  • Regis Saxton

    I don’t disagree with your conclusion, just how you arrived there and using Matt 25 to get there. You neglect to highlight that Jesus was talking to his disciples. The three parables of Matt 25 are all telling *believers* to get ready, to do good works, and not idle (in brief). The sheep and goats is a parable separating Christians from Christians, that WE would be proved by our works. We would do well to remember that next time we are infighting. But it is simply incorrect to point at this verse to indict the world; other verses yes, but Matt 25 is specifically an indictment of, and warning to, Christians.

    Also, good update explaining your position, however you would do better to refer to direct, primary sources for your claim that this was a common interpretation, rather than the three secondary authors. Who are they and how do we know they are right?

  • Deana Holmes

    Jesus, save us from your professional followers like Denny Burk, who scrabble through the Bible looking for verses that hold up a view of the world which allows them to be superior to all the rest of us below you.

    It’s amazing how much you ignore the Bible, even though you claim to believe every word of it. May I direct your attention to Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount? I think you need to refresh your memory on the following:

    38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,[a] let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,[b] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


    And that’s from the ESV, too.

    Seriously, you’re reminding me very much why I walked away from the church, when you can take the plain teachings of Jesus and use pretzel logic to support something that Jesus *never* intended (see above). The baker, the florist, the candlestick maker, they should have all just done the work. *shakes head*

  • Gregg Sotack

    LOL! This isn’t your typical internet “Comments” section! No pejorative terms towards other posters! Nary a ‘moron’, ‘idiot’, (or far worse) to be found in the entire string! 🙂 . Only a whole bunch of thought-provoking comments from different points of view. Well done, bro’s and sis’s!

  • Denny Burk

    Hello, everyone. Mike Cosper wrote an extended critique of my post. I have responded to him in the third “update” at the end of the post above. Thanks!

  • A. P. Hancock

    A question for all – Would our time be better spent serving whomever the text refers to and the poor rather than debating at such length?

    • Christiane Smith

      Hi A.P. HANCOCK,

      We learn in the holy Gospel of St. Luke 22:27, this:
      ” I am among you as One who serves”

      if the premise is that the text refers ONLY to those who are among the poor ministers who come in the Name of the Lord,
      then by serving them, we ALSO indirectly serve those whom they are bound to serve themselves in future in His Name . . . these poor ministers will ‘pay it forward’, but NOT ‘exclusively’ to their ‘own kind’ because ‘that is what the pagans do’
      . . . they will follow Our Lord’s example . . . and Our Lord came with compassion for those who were ‘poor and lost and without a shepherd’

      if people follow Christ, they give, they serve . . . and the reason for helping is not limited to ‘our own kind’ but the mission goes outward to those who need Christ’s love and care

      Sir, I wonder if you have an orthodox view of the Incarnation because your question seems inspired by a most holy appreciation for the deep mysteries of the Incarnation.

      • A. P. Hancock

        Thank you for your participation and thoughts CS. I do have a strong view of the Incarnation and the role that believers play in presenting Christ to the world through word and deed. As I read a few of the many responses to Denny’s article, I simply wanted to comment on the fact that we seem to spend so much of our time debating and so little time going. Jesus spent His time among the people, particularly common people and people in need. I was a seminary professor/dean for 10 years and certainly enjoyed the dialogue. But the Lord turned my heart and focus to those in need and I left the seminary to lead a compassion ministry. My assessment of Denny’s article is that he is correct with regard to the passage in Matthew. But I would like for him to write an article on what the Bible does say about meeting the needs of the poor. Thank you again. May God bless you as you serve Him and others. APH

  • Craig Bohn

    Parables have definitive parallels to groups symbolized by the characters in the story. “Least of these” needs to continue within the parameter established in the parable. “Least of these” must somehow still relate to a category established by a grouping of the exemplary people. To me, I see the parable (and passage) as Jesus saying I (God) love everyone, and you demonstrate love for me (God) by helping anyone in need.

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