Keving DeYoung is continuing his series of articles on social justice. In his latest post he deals with Jesus' words in Matthew 25. This is, in my mind, a very important article because the Matthew 25 text has so often been misused.
Matthew 25 has become a favorite passage for many progressives and younger evangelicals. Even in the mainstream media it seems like hardly a day goes by without someone referencing Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. And few biblical phrases have gotten as much traction as “the least of these.” Whole movements have emerged whose central tenet is to care for “the least of these” ala Matthew 25. The implications–whether it be increased government spending, increased concern for “social justice,” or a general shame over not doing enough–are usually thought to be obvious from the text.
But in popular usage of the phrase, there’s almost no careful examination of what Jesus actually means by “the least of these.” Even brilliant scholars are not immune to this oversight. In his important book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues at one point that Christ makes “our treatment of strangers” a “measure of righteousness.” He then quotes from Matthew 25:34-40, followed by this conclusion: “To welcome the stranger–those outside of the community of faith–is to welcome Christ. Believer or nonbeliever, attractive or unattractive, admirable or disreputable, upstanding or vile–the stranger is marked by the image of God” (245). Now, it’s certainly true that we all are made in God’s image. It’s also true, on other grounds, that dealing kindly with strangers, even those outside the church, is a good thing (Gal. 6:10). But it’s difficult to conclude this is Jesus’ point in Matthew 25.
So who are “the least of these” if they are not society’s poor and downtrodden? “The least of these” refers to other Christians in need, in particular itinerant Christian teachers dependent on hospitality from their family of faith.
DeYoung is absolutely right. "The least of these" in Matthew 25 is not a reference to the poor, imprisoned, or hungry in general. This is not to say that we are not to help the poor regardless of their faith or lack of connection to us. However, in Matthew 25 Jesus is dealing specifically with "the least of these brothers of mine." He is referring to those who would follow him (specifically the apostles) declaring the gospel of the kingdom. Because of their work they would be harassed, impoverished, and persecuted. How his followers received the apostles corresponded to how they received the gospel they proclaimed hence the warning of judgement.
Read the rest of DeYoung's article for the four supporting reasons underpinning this interpretation of Matthew 25.