“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40, NIV).
This verse tends to be a common clarion call at Christian homeless shelters, food banks, refugee organizations, and many nonprofit ministries. However, who are “the least of these?” This passage is often cited in popular Nobel Peace Prize addresses like that of MLK Jr.’s in 1964 and Mother Theresa’s 1979, or National Prayer Breakfast speeches like Bono’s in 2006 and Barack Obama’s 2014, or even during famous homilies like that of Pope Francis’ on the World Day of the Poor in 2017. Matthew 25:40 is frequently cited in discussions surrounding poverty and social justice.
It is without dispute that caring for the poor and outcasts in society in general is a biblical principle (Lev. 19:9-10, Ps. 82:3-4, Prov. 14:21, 31, 19:17, 21:13, 29:7, Mk. 10:21-22, Lk. 14:12-14, Jm. 2:2-4). However, despite the many good intentions, utilizing this verse to teach such a principle relies on a faulty interpretation of Matthew 26:31-46. When read within its proper context, Matthew 25:40 refers specifically to commissioned Christian missionaries and not the outcasts of society in general.
The phrase, “the least of these” tends to get a lot more attention than the proceeding phrase, “brothers and sisters of mine.” This leads to misinterpretations as to whom Christ is actually referring to. Contrary to the popular understandings, Jesus is actually referring exclusively to his own disciples here. One only needs to flip back a few chapters to demonstrate this point. In Matthew 12 Jesus says, “For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister…” (v50, NIV).
The phrase, “the least of these” tends to get a lot more attention than the proceeding phrase, “brothers and sisters of mine.” This leads to misinterpretations.
The most extensive survey of historical Christian understandings of this passage comes from Sherman W. Gray’s 1989 book, The Least of My Brothers: Matthew 25:31-46, A History of Interpretation. Utilizing a plethora of sources, Sherman persuasively demonstrates that this “narrow interpretation” of verse 40 is the predominant viewpoint throughout Church history (p. 349). Thus, there are strong historical grounds to contend with the popular notion of expanding “the least of these” as referring to anyone “overlooked or ignored,” which is precisely what Eugene Peterson does in his exceedingly idiomatic paraphrased Bible, The Message (2002).
For a deeper understanding of Matthew 25:31-46, it is necessary to read this passage in light of what Jesus said fifteen chapters earlier in Matthew 10. Reading these two together in parallel brings to light the primary meaning of “the least of these” and the actions of the sheep.
In Matthew 10, Jesus commissions his twelve disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven to the lost sheep of Israel (10:6). At the same time, Jesus says “do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts – no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave” (10:9, NIV).
Why does Jesus command his disciples to journey like this? Although no specific explanation is provided in Matthew, the reader may find an answer in a parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 9, the disciples argued about who would be the greatest among them, in which Jesus readily rebuked them, using a little child as an example of whom the disciples should strive to be like. Jesus goes on to say, “for it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48), which is why Jesus calls his disciples “little ones” in Matthew 10:42. Therefore, it seems highly probable that “little ones” (10:42) and “the least of these” (25:40) both refer to these traveling disciples.
The disciples will receive glory by becoming “the least of these” for the sake of carrying the gospel to the lost sheep. Therefore, these disciples willingly gave up their material possessions, security, and comfort, for the sake of advancing the gospel throughout the nations.
These newly appointed traveling missionaries are now Christ’s ambassadors throughout the world. When Jesus commissions the twelve in Matthew 10, he tells them that, “anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (10:40). This is the crux of Matt. 25:39-40. The embrace or denial of Christ’s messengers represents the embrace or denial of Christ himself (25:40). This passage is not primarily concerned with the economic and social welfare of Christians in general, it is about the eternal judgment of the nations in particular.
It is more accurate to think of Matthew 25:31-46 as descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Jesus is not telling anyone how to become sheep, he is teaching his disciples how they are to recognize the sheep from the goats as they proclaim the gospel to the nations.
The sheep who embrace the message of the gospel, will inevitably embrace the messenger as a brother in Christ. Recall back to Matthew 10, where Christ says, “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (10:42, NIV). This is the same sort of embrace that Christ is referring to with the “least of these” in Matthew 25:40.
This sort of holistic embrace of Christ’s ambassadors implies a holistic embrace of Christ himself. It is more accurate to think of Matthew 25:31-46 as descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Jesus is not telling anyone how to become sheep, he is teaching his disciples how they are to recognize the sheep from the goats as they proclaim the gospel to the nations. We know see who “the least of these” are.
Although Matthew 25:31-46 is descriptive, present applications should still derive from it. Christians should be sympathetic, caring, and supportive of missionaries who give everything up for the sake of preaching the gospel to the nations. If Christians are to truly prioritize the good news, they must also prioritize those who give up everything to proclaim it. In essence, this is a gospel-centered understanding of Matthew 25:31-46. Anchoring this passage to Matthew 10 allows the reader to see Jesus’ concern for the embrace of his missionaries. Christ’s missionaries bring the message of hope to the poor and social outcasts of the entire world, and this is why the prophets and apostles declared “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isa. 52:7, Rom. 10:15).
May the sheep hear Christ’s voice and welcome the least of his brothers and sisters!
Taylor AndersonSee More Essays
Taylor Anderson graduated from Grand Canyon University with a BA in Christian Studies and is currently completing his MA in History. He is working as a Grading and Instructional Assistant for undergraduate Christian Worldview classes at the same institution.