Who are 'the least of these'?
One important point of biblical interpretation that came up during the course of a recent TREK gathering with the Christian Associates team in Gothenburg had to do with the meaning of Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. It is remarkable how this passage is widely and consistently misread as providing support for Christian service to the poor.
The context was a discussion about the relation between humanitarian missional projects such as Serve the City and evangelism. The usual argument is that in serving the poor - supposedly the ‘least of these’ - we are serving Jesus. To give a salient example, in their new book ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church (reviewed here) Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch describe an encounter with a woman outside the ornate Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow:
There is no question that the juxtaposition of the cathedral and the pauper throws into stark relief the frequent hypocrisy, apathy and moral blindness of the church. But to suggest that this woman fulfils the part of ‘one of the least of these’, in whom Jesus himself is identifiable, is misleading. The issue of social engagement and service to the poor lies at the heart of the current debate about what it means to be ‘missional’, and it is important that we do not make careless exegetical - and inevitably theological - assumptions in our eagerness to back up our missional instincts.
Judgment of the nations
The judgment of the nations that Jesus describes occurs when ‘the Son of man comes in his glory’. Within the framework of the Gospel narrative he is speaking not of a final judgment but of that historical moment - prophetically imagined - when the disciples will be delivered from their enemies and rewarded for their faithful obedience to their Lord. Since this is a judgment of the nations, the event cannot simply be associated with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus must have in mind circumstances under which his followers will be vindicated against their Gentile or pagan enemies. The allusion here to the image of the Lord coming ‘and all the holy ones with him’ in Zechariah 14:5 to fight against Jerusalem’s enemies supports this reading.
When the people are separated, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, those on the right ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (34); those on the left are dismissed ‘into the fire of the age prepared for the devil and his angels’ (41). The criterion for making this division has to do with how the nations treated ‘the least of these my brothers’ when they were hungry or thirsty or outcast or naked or unclothed.
So the question is: Who are these ‘least’, these ‘brothers’? There is no basis for supposing that they are the world’s poor and destitute - Jesus only ever speaks of Israel’s poor. The usage is well enough established in Matthew: they are Jesus’ disciples, whom he sends out into the world to announce that YHWH is about to act decisively as king (this is the coming of the kingdom of God) to judge, redeem and restore his people. So the risen Jesus, for example, instructs the women: ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee…’ (Matt. 28:10; cf. 12:46). The teaching given to the disciples in Matthew 10 has in view the circumstances of their mission and concludes with what is in effect a summary of the story that will be told in chapter 25: ‘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’.
Romans 8:29 provides a further development of the motif: those who have the Spirit have been adopted as sons; if they suffer as Christ suffered, they will be fellow-heirs with him (8:16-17); they will in this manner be conformed to his image; and he will become ‘firstborn among many brothers’. Jesus’ ‘brothers’, therefore, are those who will share in his sufferings and vindication for the sake of the future of the people of God. Indeed, Paul’s accounts of his own apostolic afflictions mirror the hardships that Jesus describes (cf. Rom. 8:35; 2 Cor. 11:23-27; 12:10).
So the point of the parable of the sheep and goats is that the nations will be judged according to how they have responded to the presence of the Christ-like disciples in their midst. Those who treat them kindly will be surprised to discover that in so doing they have ministered to Jesus himself. They will be counted as righteous; they will inherit the life of the coming age. Those who mistreat or neglect them will, conversely, suffer the destruction that will accompany the end of the age.
Presumably Jesus intends to convey to the disciples, therefore, the assurance that as they face humiliation, rejection and suffering in the course of their mission, they count as much to their Father as Jesus himself did in his sufferings and death. They are, in this quite realistic and practical sense, little Jesuses. It is not simply that they are poor, nor even that they are disciples, but that they are suffering for his sake.
But the passage must also say something about the eschatological significance of the mission of the disciples for the nations - for the Greek-Roman world. It is precisely the presence among them of a community that shares willingly in Jesus’ suffering that will determine the fate of the pagan world. Their mission is not simply an invitation to believe in the gospel; it is a challenge to the nations of the Greek-Roman world to discern the reality of God in such radical, self-giving, Christ-like faithfulness. But this is not in itself an argument for serving the world’s poor.