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A currently very popular Bible passage among Christians and in the culture at large is Mathew. 25:31-46. It is a story about the last judgement where Jesus says he will gather the nations together and divide them into the sheep and the goats, the former going to heaven and the later falling under God’s wrath. He tells both groups that where they are going has been determined by their actions towards him when he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison. Both groups say, “Lord, when did we see you in those conditions?” And Jesus says, “when you did or did not help the least of these my brothers in these conditions, then you were doing or not doing them to me.”

The passage is then applied in the following way. Jesus is present among the poor and needy of this world. If we want to serve him, we must serve them. If we don’t serve them we will fall under God’s judgement. It is often applied to the church to discern whether or not we are true or false Christians .This is a very powerful motivational passage for helping the needy. and thus many groups advocating for helping the poor use it, whether they are Christian organizations or not. Also, this is a very popular passage in both conservative and liberal churches, calling on their flocks to help those in need.

There is one problem with all this. This passage has absolutely nothing to do with helping the poor. Jesus says he is present in “the least of these his brothers.” Let us examine how these words are used elsewhere In the Gospel of Matthew. First, Jesus never calls the poor his brothers in Matthew, but he does call his followers his brothers in 12:48-50 and 28:10. If Matthew 25 is consistent with the rest of Matthew, Jesus is talking about Christians who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison. It is how people treat Christians in those conditions that determine their destinies. Second, this interpretation is confirmed when we look at a similar phrase to “the least of these” in Matthew: “little ones.” This phrase is used in 10:42 and in 18:6-14 and In both instances it is used of followers of Christ, not the poor in general. There can be can be no doubt Jesus is talking about how the world treats Christians in destitute conditions in Matthew 25, not how the church or the world treats the poor.

We may perhaps go a bit deeper. In Matthew 10 Jesus is commissioning his disciples to go out and do mission work (10:1-15). In verses 16-38 he goes on a lengthy discussion of the persecution they will encounter while doing their mission work. 10:39-42 closes this section by talking about the reward that will be given those who receive Jesus through the disciples’ mission work. Verse 42 says “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.” The point seems to be that whoever will help out a Christian missionary that is being persecuted for their faith shall not lose their reward. This remarkably seems to be a commentary on Matthew 25 and the sheep and the goats. Matthew 25 is saying the world will be judged in how they treat persecuted Christians and in particular, persecuted Christians who have been proclaiming the gospel. The persecution of his people is a big deal to Jesus. It is often forgotten that the longest, most extensive of the beatitudes is a blessing on persecuted Christians (Matthew 5:10-12).

Another factor that points to the truth of this interpretation is how the word “nations” is used in Matthew. It is the nations that are being judged in Matthew 25. In Matthew “nations” is never used of the church but always for the world outside of the church. The church is sent to the nations (28:19), the gospel is proclaimed to the nations (24:14), the nations hate the church (24:9). Thus the people who are being judged in Matthew 25 are not Christians in relations to how they treat the poor but the unbelieving nations in how they treat the persecuted church, or more specifically Christians persecuted because they were sharing their faith.

Finally no where else in Matthew is Jesus’ said to have spiritual unity with the poor in general, but over and over again he radically identifies with his people so that his people represent him in this world. Therefore, whatever is done to his people could be said to be done to him. See especially 18:1-6 where Jesus says whoever receives one of these “little ones” receives me. See also 10:22, 24-25, 39-42,18:20, 24:9.

What we have shown is that every component of story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 fits better with the rest of Matthew if it is interpreted as how the world treats persecuted Christians, not the poor in general. It also has the advantage of not promoting a salvation by good works, the good works of helping the poor. Instead salvation is by grace through faith when the world responds to Christ present in his suffering church. As the church takes up its cross imitating its master and then proclaims the gospel of God’s grace in Christ, the world either is drawn to Christ or repulsed by him. When they reach out to persecuted Christians, it is sign that the seeds of faith in Christ are beginning to germinate.

Objections

You hate the poor if you take this interpretation.

By no means. There are many, many, many other Bible texts that teach us to love and care for the poor. I believe this is a mark of true Christian character, to love widows and orphans in distress. The lack of care for the needy would be a serious default in Christian character, if not a sign that true faith is not present. No, I believe Christians should reach out to, love and care for the needy. I am only saying that the Matthew 25 passage about he sheep and the goats is not addressing this issue.

This is bizarre interpretation that has never been proposed before.

Maybe it is novel to 21st century American Christians, but it is not novel in the history of the church. In the Middle Ages 68% of commentators on this passage took it to mean what we have proposed and in the Renaissance/Reformation era, 74% of commentators took this interpretation. Thus from 450-1650 AD, over 70% of Christians who commented on this passage agree with this interpretation. Not only is it not novel, it is the majority interpretation by far in that 1200 year span of church history.

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2 thoughts on “The Bible Misused: “The Least of These” Is Not the Poor

  1. Thank you for this exploration of this passage in light of the wider context in Matthew. I also appreciate the historical context — that this was the more prevalent interpretation by commentators in earlier times. Food for thought!

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