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What You Probably Don’t Know about ‘The Least of These’

A more biblically accurate understanding of Jesus' words in Matthew 25.
What You Probably Don’t Know about ‘The Least of These’
Image: Jirka Matousek / Flickr

Most Christians agree that caring for the poor and marginalized is a central tenet of the gospel. And what better passage to reinforce this principle than Matthew 25:40, where Jesus commands us to care for “the least of these.” Many of us readily assume that “the least of these” refers to the poor and marginalized. But are those who Jesus is really talking about?

That question might seem trivial, but its importance can hardly be overstated. After all, Jesus ties our eternal destiny to how we treat “the least of these brothers of mine.” In the broader context of the passage (Matt. 25:31–46), the sheep and goats represent salvation criteria—who is in and who is out. It’s a stark picture, with the only outcomes being salvation or damnation. In a breathtaking scene, the Son of Man sits on a heavenly throne surrounded by angels and renders his verdict: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (v. 46). One’s eternal security is tied to caring for “the least of these,” whoever they are.

Not Who You Think

Matthew 25 gives few clues as to who “the least of these” are. They’re described only as hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Building on paucity of information in the text, at least three possibilities have been proposed.

First, the “least of these” could be Jesus’ ethnic kin, the Jews—his “brothers.” This view assumes that “all the nations” (v. 32) are Gentiles who are judged based on their treatment of Jews during the tribulation. A newsletter I once received from a messianic Jewish organization broadened the ...

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What You Probably Don’t Know about ‘The Least of These’
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