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Monday, October 24, 2011

Stopping Textual Abuse: Identifying "the least of these" in Matthew 25:31-46

In the latest work from Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert (What is the Mission of the Church?), while promoting mission and justice, they expose some of the misapplied Scriptures often used by popular level missional and social justice types. One of those Scriptures often misapplied is "the least of these" text. (I use them as a guide for this post, but what follows is produced by me.) Today, we’ll deal with one of the favorite texts of social justice advocates: Matthew 25:31-46. More specifically, verses 40 and 45 are the key verses most often pointed to. They read:

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).

In v.35-39 and v.42-44 the people Jesus mentions as the “least of these” are those who are strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned, hungry, and thirsty. So isn’t this self-explanatory? Jesus is telling His audience in this text that the judgment to come will be based on how we treat all people in these conditions. We need to be all about social justice to all people everywhere and all the time! But while this is normally how the text is understood, (and I have no doubt it is mostly well intentioned; though perhaps agenda driven), the proper analysis of this text shows that Jesus is not talking about all people who are in these conditions (in the general sense), but about a more specific group of people who are in these conditions.

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!



  1. I enjoyed your article. However, it seems Jesus' is working to undo the very thinking you are projecting. You rightly stated, Jesus' brothers and sisters (and mother) are those who do the will of his heavenly Father. But you are wrongly applying that point to the primary thrust of the text.
    Throughout Matthew doing the will of Jesus' heavenly Father is defined as self-sacrificial love displayed in Jesus' life and the in-breaking kingdom whereby the needs of the poor are met (e.g., Mt 5:3-12). Jesus is working, throughout his ministry, to help his disciples understand that who you care for is not to be contingent on who they are- great or least. His disciples need to focus on, not who someone else is to you, as if their leastness or greatness qualifies or disqualifies them for the love of the kingdom, but who disciples are to be to others! The question is, are YOU a brother to Jesus? That is, are you doing the will of Jesus' Father in heaven living in the way of the in-breaking kingdom by meeting the needs of the needy (who, BTW are the very people for whom the Kingdom's dawn is such great news)? If you are, you will not choose who to care for based on who they are but who you are remembering you are to be an undiscriminating servant.
    The thrust of the parable then is not to determine who must be cared for and who can be excused from the care of Jesus' disciples, but on the attitude of the person who is offering (or not offering) care. A true disciple does not withhold the experience of the Kingdom based on the greatness of the person in need. The onus is on those who claim to be following Jesus- are they displaying the love of the Kingdom for the least or only for the greatest? Keep in mind, the kingdom has not come to be displayed only in the lives of those who are in it. In that case it would be vacant still as no one has entered it without first experiencing it.
    Unfortunately your interpretation of the text offers an excuse for not caring for the needs of others and thereby opens the door for kind of thinking Jesus is working to overcome.

  2. Cole: Thanks for your comments. However, while you apparently read the post, I'm not sure you comprehended it. I say that because numerous times I mentioned in my own words, and in the words of D.A. Carson, that this exegesis of the text IN NO WAY excuses followers of Jesus from caring for the needs of others outside the Body of Christ. Yet, your entire comment blasts me for saying the exact opposite. Please, go back and re-read how much I stressed that point. You're swatting at flies that simply are not present. And I say that while agreeing with much of the foundational principle your comment refers to. Brother, we agree! (just not on this particular text... which leads me to this next paragraph...)

    What the post was actually about was the exegesis of this particular text, something you chose not to address (and that's fine). But again, there are PLENTY of texts that can and should be used regarding our care for poor outside the Body of Christ, but as this parable was intended when Jesus spoke it, THIS TEXT is not one of them. In this parable Jesus is talking about a particular group of people; i.e. my brothers (disciples) who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick, or in prison. He even said as much.

    Let me put it this way: Should followers of Jesus care for the needs of the unbelieving poor? Absolutely! Does Matthew 25:31-46 explicitly speak to that point? No.

    Could you clarify one comment for me? I'm not sure what you meant by this: "Keep in mind, the kingdom has not come to be displayed only in the lives of those who are in it. In that case it would be vacant still as no one has entered it without first experiencing it."

    Grace be with you -

  3. First of all, thanks for your reply. I do understand you recognize the need to care for those outside the disciples of Jesus. I am sorry if my response came across as accusing you of something to the contrary. I simply believe your and Carson's exegesis of the text offers an exception to this care that was unintended by Jesus and inconsistent with his teaching.
    The impetus of your argument lies on the use of adelphos as a specific reference to someone "connected with Jesus" and only those connected with Jesus. That is problematic since to read it as such is anachronistic, and thus an exegetical fallacy. (I am regret to think Carson is not purvey to this as it is due to his scholarship that I am able to note such a fallacy!) At the time of Jesus speaking, adelphos was defined by Jesus as "those who do the will of my Father in heaven" not explicitly as someone connected with Jesus and certainly not, at this point, to members of the "Body of Christ." Again, that would be to read a later understanding of adelphos into the text (unless of course, you would like to argue this text has Matthew's sits im leben in mind and not Jesus').
    Concerning Jesus' description of doing his Father's will, it is proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom which includes living in the way of the kingdom. Central to the kingdom's way is caring for the needs of the needy regardless of association or their level of greatness (e.g, Lk 10:25-37). This is the type of heavenly Father will-doing we see in Jesus and the type of will-doing he expects of his disciples- which is the key point of this parable. Your interpretation of the text as teaching an exception to this point on the slippery exegesis of adelphos without serious regard for other exegetical aspects is suspect. The point of the parable is not to offer way of discipleship that considers relatedness or greatness when offer care for the needy! Quite to the contrary, the point is, as a disciple of Jesus, you, like him, are not to withhold your care based on "greatness." To say care is only necessary in this case if the person is a disciple is to return to the perspective of offering care based on greatness- with "great" great defined as relatedness to Jesus, is entirely inconsistent with everything else Jesus has taught about caring for the needy as it relates to being a disciple. The parable is a matter of action in keeping with discipleship, not an means of excusing the marks of that discipleship based on who the needy are. To use a text that is teaching about true discipleship to open the door to something less than what Jesus has defined as true discipleship is strange at best. (more- see next post)

  4. Again, you rightly recognize Jesus' call to care for the needy throughout his ministry. So, why, based on slippery, incomplete exegesis are you arguing to reinstitute exceptions for what Jesus has spent a great deal of his ministry on removing? We all know Jesus was embattled with religious leaders criticizing his care for the poor and the sinner. Why would he offer exceptions for the same behavior? Concerning a more complete exegetical consideration, how do you square your perspective with Jesus' call in this very parable to care for the stranger, who by definition is someone you do not know? How does this align with the idea that Jesus is teaching here that you only need to care for someone "connected with Jesus" or a member of "the body of Christ"? Do you interrogate him/her prior to offering to care for them? This really leads me back to the paying attention to the narrative of Matthew and the fact that Jesus has come to offer his care for the very kind of people he mentions in the parable at hand, "to preach Good News to the Poor...restore sight, " regardless of their relationship with him and expects his followers to do the same. Back to exegetical consideration, it seems that if someone withheld care from a known disciple or esp. a member of the "Body of Christ" (if we can even apply that perspective here), that they would also understand there was some connectivity with Jesus and not be shocked by Jesus' accusation?
    To say this parable relates only to those connected with Jesus flies in the face of the parable. The whole point is that these "least" are considered so lowly by the goats that they are surprised by Jesus association with them! Their response is, well, if we had know they were connected with you, Jesus, we would have cared for them.
    The poor and destitute were the people Jesus came and spent time with when he walked this earth, why are we so hesitant (and afraid??) to say he is not with them now??? That seems really to be the heart of the problem here, is it not? We seem concerned to say that the "least" of the parable are know by and associated with Jesus even if they are not intentionally with him? I understand that hang-up but, we must put that concern aside considering that when we do this we are doing the same things Jesus critics were doing...criticizing Jesus for the company he keeps! Jesus came hung with those who did not know him, yep that includes us at some point, and it is not up to us to tell Jesus what company to keep!
    As to what I mean by "keep in mind, the kingdom has not come to be displayed only in the lives of those who are in it. In that case it would still be vacant as no one has entered it without first experiencing it." I mean that, when the kingdom breaks into our lives we are not in it, but still, we experience it which leads us to enter it and become people focused on others experiencing it and entering it as we did. Jesus way requires us to participate in the kingdom in such a way that those who are not its citizens experience its in-breaking that they, like us might enter. It seems you would agree with this, thus, my "keep in mind."
    Thanks for your time brother and bless your ministry. For what it is worth, I am not trying to offend or antagonize, just seeking to be a disciple growing in the midst of another disciple!

  5. Cole: Sorry for the delay. Was away for a while during break.

    Take a look at the post again and my identification of Matthew's use of who the μικροι (least) or μικροων (little ones) when Jesus uses that word. Respectfully, for all your talk about exegesis you have yet to exegete the use of these words, particularly regarding how Jesus identifies His disciples. And in regards to this specific parable: Who is Jesus talking to? Who is with Him/by His side? Who are the "little ones" in previous uses in Matthew? Why did Jesus even say "my brothers" if He wanted this particular parable to be universally applicable?

    For one, it is a fallacy to think that because Carson and others point out that Jesus is speaking about a specific group of people in this text, that it automatically dismisses Jesus' other instructions in other texts regarding a more universal application. Yet this is exactly what it seems you are doing. What I read from you is that because we might say Jesus was talking about His disciples exclusively here, then that means we are limiting Jesus' teachings elsewhere regarding universal application. This is what is called a non-sequitur. It simply does not follow.

    Let me say this as plainly as possible: Just because Jesus is talking about a specific group of people in this text in no way, shape, or form offers an exception in other cases where Jesus is clearly speaking about a more universal application. Why do you insist that it does?

    Your continued use of "only care for" and other absolutes of language is an incorrect representation of the point of the post. You are fighting a battle with the post that is not even there. Who said I was afraid of Jesus associating with poor people? Where did I even hint that we should determine what company Jesus keeps? Where on Earth did you get these things? This is what I'm so confused about. Nowhere do I even hint at such things. Stop swatting at invisible flies.

    Regarding the stranger, it is very simple. A stranger is someone you do not know. So if a missionary or other disciple comes to someone's house and they or their message are not welcomed then they have not welcomed Christ and His message. This is why identification with Christ is so important to this parable. And again, do some research concerning mikroi in Matthew and how they are identified. I gave you a head start in the post.

    Hope your Thanksgiving was a blessing to you and yours. Grace be with you -