Matthew 25:40 NIV
Then the King will reply, “Truly I say to you, whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
I have seen many internet articles just on this one passage (Matthew 25:31-46). Unfortunately, such articles tend to be written by someone telling Christians that they are not acting like good Christians, chastising them for failing to live in accordance with this verse. They share an underlying indictment: “How dare you claim to care about people’s spiritual condition if you won’t take care of their physical needs?”
On its surface, this passage looks like it means that one’s eternal salvation is determined by one’s acts of compassion. Whenever we help the disenfranchised and the downtrodden of society, our entrance into heaven is all the more assured. On the other hand, as I heard one famous teacher describe it, Jesus will turn away at the final judgment from self-identifying Christians who failed to help the poor during their lifetime, saying, “I don’t want to hear it!”
You, dear reader, may currently hold this view. So did I. You may not even be aware that there might be a better way to understand Jesus’ words. Neither did I. (And, neither do some commentaries!)
We will almost always misapply what we misinterpret, and we will always misinterpret when we ignore literary context. There are several problems with the view described above, but I will only highlight what I think should be most obvious—this view ignores the very next words that Jesus says.
Jesus doesn’t just say, “the least of these” (yes, He just says “the least of these” in v 45, but He clearly has in mind the same people about whom He spoke in v 40); He says, “the least of these brothers of mine” (or “brothers and sisters of mine,” as in the translation above). Jesus doesn’t just throw out the term “the least of these” as a poetic catch-all for every disadvantaged person in existence. It seems to me that He has a particular subset of disadvantaged people in mind.
Question: Whom does Jesus consider “brothers and sisters?” Answer: His disciples in particular, and by extension all Christians in general*.
Matthew 12:46-50 ESV
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus most closely identifies Himself with His closest followers (Matthew 10:40-42), those who “[do] the will of [His] Father in heaven,” which means they believe that He is indeed the One the Father has sent (John 6:28, 40). Jesus has already foretold that those who follow Him will be rejected and even suffer overt persecution on account of their faith in Jesus and their proclamation of the gospel (Matthew 5:10-12, 10:16-25). These persecutors, along with those who passively approve of their actions, are the goats Jesus describes.
Conversely, those who helped the disciples with their physical needs counteracted against the persecution and ostracism the disciples suffered. Their acts of compassion were also acts of solidarity; they outwardly showed that they inwardly accepted the disciples’ message. These sympathizers are the sheep Jesus describes. Thus, in accordance with the rest of Scripture, this passage teaches that entrance into Jesus’ eternal kingdom is contingent on accepting the message of the gospel in all its fullness and acting in accordance with its implications. Faith that works, and all that (James 2:14-17).
In short, this particular passage is NOT about charity in general nor what is called “social justice.” I do not write this to denigrate or discourage you if your current practice is based on what I consider a flawed interpretation. This is not a call to exclusivity but a reminder of priority, not turning a blind eye but having a biblical perspective. I am not suggesting that we never do anything to help people in general who have serious need unless they pass some sort of spiritual litmus test, but that we make sure we are doing the most important things first. I cannot tell you what you should do about the guy on the street corner, but I will encourage you to pay more attention to Christians who are suffering as a direct result of their faith in Jesus. It happens, even today, even here.
Those who stand against Christians, stand against Christ; those who stand with Christ, stand with Christians. Christians who are not currently being persecuted are to support those who are. Because whatever we do for a Christian—even the least important Christian you know—who is suffering for the sake of Christ, we do for Christ Himself, the Lord of all Christians.
* I would argue that whenever the word “brother” is used in the Bible, if it does not clearly mean “male sibling,” then it means either “fellow Israelite” (God’s Old Testament people) or “fellow Christian” (God’s New Testament people). Go ahead, try that definition in Leviticus 25 or I John 3:10-18.