25:40 - “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”
25:45 - “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Jesus is telling a parable about the eternal judgment. He speaks of the Son of Man appearing in glory and separating people, like a shepherd separates sheep from goats (v.31-33). The King then tells the sheep to enter His Kingdom (v.34), that is, “eternal life” (v.46), and the goats are cursed and tossed into “the eternal fire” (v.41), that is, “eternal punishment” (v.46). The basis of this judgment is how people acted towards “the least of these” (v.40, v.45).
Before continuing, I want to concur with a statement from D.A. Carson when addressing this text: “I am loath to challenge [the usual interpretation] because it is always important for those who know and follow the living God to show their life in God in the realms of compassion, service, and self-abnegation.” However, “it is rather unlikely that that [all hurting people] are the focus of this parable.” (emphasis mine)
As much as social justice advocates want to define the phrase “the least of these” as all people everywhere who are oppressed or demoralized, Jesus does not define it that way and that is not the point of the parable. Verse 40 is the controlling authority for helping us see who the group of people Jesus is talking about are: “the least of these my brothers,” (or, for you 2011 NIV types, “my brothers and sisters”). Granted, v.45 does not include “my brothers” but it is clear Jesus is talking about the same group of people (it’s the same parable, the same audience, the same subject).
So who is a “brother” of Jesus? Jesus helps us understand whom His “brother” is in the same parable by the phrase that immediately follows “the least of these.” Whatever you did to them: “you did it to me” (v.40) or “you did not do it to me” (v.45). So whoever the brother is, s/he is directly connected to Jesus. Now we know that not all people are connected to Jesus, for only those who believe in Him are “in Him” or "in the vine." In as much as the rich are not automatically connected to Jesus, the poor are also not automatically connected to Jesus (though, Jesus’ compassion for them is clear, as should ours be). To take it a step further, Mark records Jesus as defining His brothers as “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Certainly, not believing in Jesus is contrary to the will of God. Carson makes an additional note on Acts 9:4. In it Jesus tells Saul that when Saul persecuted the Church, Saul was persecuting Him. So by extension, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are those in Him who do His will and are in His Church. There is also the multiple references to the brother in 1 John, where it is clear John is speaking about those who are in the faith. In the Matthew text, the clearest reference is to His disciples who were following Him and present during the telling of this parable, but in addition we can include all those who believe in Him and are following Him.
More convincingly, the word used for “least” in the Greek Matthew 25:40,45 text is the superlative μικροι (mikroi), and when we look at the other times forms of this word are used in Matthew, we see it references those who believe in Jesus/His disciples. Here are just two of those examples:
18:6 “whoever causes one of these little ones (μικροων, mikrone) who believe in me to sin…”
10:42 “whoever gives one of these little ones (μικροων, mikrone) even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple…”
Then going off of that second example is the parallel passage of 10:40-42 to 25:31-46. In both cases, Jesus is talking about his disciples who are traveling around preaching the Good News and who are in need of provision (food, drink, clothes, medicine, a place to sleep) and who may be in another land (thus, strangers) or are put in prison for their message. With all of this it is clear that Jesus is talking about a specific group of people in Matthew 25:31-46 and not everyone who is hungry, or sick, or in prison. “The least of these” text should not be used by social justice advocates to guilt others in the church into digging wells in Africa. As Carson writes, “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.”
Indeed, there are plenty of other texts that could be used (and should be used!) to support benevolence ministries to the unbelieving poor and suffering (like Luke 6:27-31; Matthew 5:16; Matthew 7:12; Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:15, etc.) but Matthew 25:31-46 should not be one of them. In fact, the Matthew text should convict those who wish to help the unbeliever over that of a believer. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:10 “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We, as believers, have a responsibility first to the Body of Christ, then to others.
So as we seek to serve others both inside and outside the church, let us not prove our cause with sloppy exegesis. We don’t need to!