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 application to argue for supporting the state of Israel. Consequently, salvation depended on one’s foreign policy.

Problems abound with this option. Jesus never refers elsewhere to the Jews as his brothers. Further, scholars debate whether the modern state of Israel can be equated with the biblical people of God. And there’s no suggestion anywhere in the New Testament that caring for Jewish people is required for salvation.

The second possibility is the most common: “the least of these” are the poor and needy. The imagery is straightforward, memorable, and powerful. Who are the most marginalized in society other than the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned? This option has some scholarly support and no doubt echoes the consistent biblical call to justice (take Deut. 15, for example). As Mother Teresa said of the poor, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.”

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It’s easy to see why this passage is so championed by justice-minded Christians. Linking our eternal destiny to caring for the powerless puts the strongest possible motivation behind such a call. Many fundraising campaigns have relied on this powerful image to solicit funds for the poor.

However, this option runs into the same problems that the first one does. For one, it doesn’t adequately account for the meaning of “brothers of mine.” Also, caring for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned isn’t taught elsewhere in the New Testament as the measuring stick for salvation. Can we really affirm that what ultimately matters is caring for the poor, not faith in Jesus? This reading veers toward a mere social gospel, where what ultimately matters are actions, not beliefs. As a result, the importance of evangelism is minimized, and feeding people is prioritized over calling them to follow Christ.

Such difficulties prompted a college student, quoted by Delia Nüesch-Olver in The Journal of Youth Ministry, to write: “For me, the most terrifying speech Jesus ever gave is told in Matthew 25:31–46. I am terrified that I might have missed so many chances to feed, clothe, and help Jesus.” To be sure, actions are crucial, but are we really in danger of damnation if we pass by someone in need?

If not the Jews or the poor, who are “the least of these”? Fortunately, there is a third option, and we don’t need to look very far to find it. A common practice of biblical interpretation is this: If we don’t understand something in a specific passage, we need to study the surrounding text—whether it be the immediate chapter or the larger book. So who else in Matthew went hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned? We find such a group in Matthew 10:1–42, where Jesus sends out the 12 disciples to preach about the kingdom.

Parallels abound between Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 and the description of “the least of these” in chapter 25. In chapter 10, the disciples had no money, bag for food, or drink (vv. 9–10; compare to the hungry and thirsty in ch. 25). They had no extra clothing (v. 10; the naked in ch. 25), and they had no home to stay in (vv. 11–14; the strangers in ch. 25). Jesus said they would often be arrested (vv. 17–20; the prisoners in ch. 25). Even the order of these circumstances is a near match. Also recurring is the idea that one’s response to Jesus’ representatives is a response to Jesus himself: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (10:40). And the rewards language in chapter 10 is conspicuously similar, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (v. 42).

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The parallels between the two passages are no accident and make a strong case that the same group is in mind. The “least of these my brothers” are the disciples, followers of Jesus who carry his message. Jesus’ “brothers” in the Gospel of Matthew are always his disciples (12:48–50; 28:10). That specific language is used of no one else.

That “the least of these” are the disciples is perhaps less obvious upon a casual reading, but according to New Testament scholar Craig Keener, it “is the majority view in church history and among contemporary New Testament scholars.” Matthew 25 appears to be one of those passages where the commonly assumed meaning diverges significantly from the dominant scholarly and historical view. Thus, Mother Teresa’s maxim that “each one of them is Jesus in disguise” is probably better applied to Christians.

The third option not only has more biblical warrant, but also avoids placing unseemly tension between Jesus and Paul regarding salvation. If “the least of these” are the Jews or the poor, then according to Jesus, individual salvation depends on works. It’s difficult, therefore, to reconcile those readings of Matthew 25 with Paul’s teaching: that we are saved by God's grace, through faith, not by anything we do (Eph. 2:8–9).

However, if “the least of these” are Jesus’ messengers, then one’s salvation is dependent upon his or her response to the proclamation of the gospel, which accords with Paul’s teaching. New Testament scholar R. T. France thus explains, “[T]he criterion of judgment becomes not mere philanthropy, but people’s response to the kingdom of heaven as it is presented to them in the person of Jesus’ ‘brothers.’ It is, therefore . . . ultimately a question of their relationship to Jesus himself.” We don’t have to be terrified that our salvation is at risk if we pass by a poor person on the street.

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Traveling Full Circle

While Scripture doesn’t identify “the least of these” as the poor and needy, in no way does it diminish the biblical mandate to care for the marginalized and underprivileged. Our actions matter. Biblical teaching about justice is comprehensive and does not rest on any single text. And this whole convoluted history of reading and misreading Matthew 25 results in more than an exegetical cautionary tale about interpreting the Bible. Matthew’s text has critical implications for what it means to fully embrace the gospel.

Both Matthew 10 and 25 depict people providing physical needs for disciples as part of their response to following Jesus, thus linking faith and justice. In Matthew 10, the disciples hit the road with no provisions, relying on first-century expectations of hospitality toward travelers. A response to the proclamation of the gospel was concurrent with and embodied by providing for the physical needs of its messengers. While we normally think of Christians both proclaiming the gospel and serving others in need, in Matthew the disciples lacked basic necessities, and those hearing the gospel met those needs. Their willingness to receive the message and provide for the disciples is the equivalent of their response to Jesus himself (10:40–42, 25:40). Coming to faith and relieving suffering appear side by side.

These passages also illustrate the importance of relationship in coming to faith. Beginning to follow Jesus included embracing other believers, even strangers, in a new community. In the biblical context, feeding the disciples looks like an ancient Near Eastern covenant meal where eating is symbolic of a covenantal relationship. Surely these relationships are more significant than giving a sandwich to a hungry traveler.

In summary, these passages in Matthew are not about the nature of the gospel, but about response to the gospel. They are telling us not what good preaching should look like—that is, deeds and not just words—but what a full embrace of the gospel looks like. The gospel is holistic, addressing every area of life. Thus, our response involves membership in a community of self-sacrificial service, not just cognitive assent to an otherworldly truth claim. Following Jesus has both mental and physical dimensions, assent and obedience.

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So in an odd way, we come full circle. While “the least of these” does not refer to the poor and powerless, a proper understanding of the text nevertheless underscores the centrality of compassionate actions to the gospel. And it may cause us to reconsider our evangelistic practices. When we lead people to Christ, do we go beyond praying the sinner’s prayer with them? Or do we give them an opportunity for a fuller expression of conversion? Perhaps a deeper humility and vulnerability should be a part of our Christian witness. After all, it is not them out there who are “the least of these.” We are. Perhaps we should start to live that way.

Andy Horvath is director of ministries at Hunt Valley Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

Image credit: Jirka Matousek, Flickr