The Predominant View of “The Least of These” in Church History

Interpreting “the least of these” as Christians is no historical anomaly.

The amount of evidence that Gray covers is vast and can hardly be reproduced in a single blog post. But we can summarize his findings with respect to the narrow view of “the least of these.” He concludes that if one sets aside references to the “least of these” that are unspecified, “then it is clear that the narrow interpretation of ‘the least’ is the predominant viewpoint throughout the centuries” (p. 349). The narrow view is held 68% of the time in Middle Ages and 74% of the time in the Renaissance/Reformation (pp. 349-50).

 

It’s hard to predict when a blog post will be particularly popular or controversial. I had no idea that my post last week about “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40) would provoke the response that it has. Some people have expressed appreciation, and others have been positively outraged at the suggestion that “the least of these” might be a reference to Christians and not to the poor in general. In fact, the comments from some on social media have been downright angry and sometimes even foul. There was even a news story devoted solely to discussing the post.

One of the most consistent objections that I have read is that this interpretation is novel. It is an interpretation that I have conjured up in order to promote my side of the “culture war.” Even though I made the case exegetically in that original post, many have rejected the argument out-of-hand as a historical novelty.

So I thought it might be worth the time to examine whether this view is really a novelty in the history of interpretation. R. T. France, Craig Keener, and many other Matthew commentators highlight Sherman Gray’s 1989 book titled The Least of My Brothers : Matthew 25: 31-46 : A History of Interpretation. It’s a scholarly monograph that marshals an impressive amount of research on how “the least of these” has been understood throughout church history. It’s an expansive piece of work that goes right to the heart of the historical question we’ve been discussing here.

Gray argues that commentators over the centuries have interpreted “the least of these” in one of three ways: (1) a narrow reference to Christians, (2) a general reference to the poor, or (3) an unspecific identification of “the least of these.” Here’s a closer look at each historical period:

In the Patristic Period, you can find the narrow interpretation in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, and (most notably) Augustine. Augustine’s towering influence is well-known. He refers to “the least” 44 times in his writings, and “nowhere does Augustine specifically state that ‘the least’ are the poor in general… it is obvious that the Christian poor are meant” (p. 69). Whereas some of the patristics are inconsistent in their references to “the least,” Augustine is consistent in identifying “the least” as Christians. Thus, “Augustine comes down clearly on the side of those who hold a restrictive viewpoint” (p. 71).

In the Medieval Period, the narrow interpretation is found in Anselm of Laon, who says that “the least” are not the poor in general, “but only those who are poor in spirit who, having put aside their own will, do the will of the heavenly Father” (p. 168). It is also in Bonaventure, who “clearly identifies ‘the least’ as Christians” (p. 175). The most influential theologian of this period is obviously Aquinas, and he also comes down clearly identifiying “the least” as Christ’s disciples (p. 180).

In the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, you can find this interpretation in a number of figures including Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. Of course, the latter two are the towering figures of the Reformation, and so it is significant that both Luther and Calvin are clear that “the least” are Christians (pp. 203-206, 208).

The amount of evidence that Gray covers is vast and can hardly be reproduced in a single blog post. But we can summarize his findings with respect to the narrow view of “the least of these.” He concludes that if one sets aside references to the “least of these” that are unspecified, “then it is clear that the narrow interpretation of ‘the least’ is the predominant viewpoint throughout the centuries” (p. 349). The narrow view is held 68% of the time in Middle Ages and 74% of the time in the Renaissance/Reformation (pp. 349-50).

None of this establishes the narrow view as the correct interpretation. That has to be settled on exegetical grounds. This impressive survey, however, does establish that interpreting “the least of these” as Christians is no historical anomaly. It has an impressive pedigree in every major period of church history. And I would argue that there is a good reason for that. The most careful readers of Matthew 25:40 have understood that Jesus was referring to his followers when he spoke of “the least of these.” And that is how we should understand it as well.

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Source: Sherman W. Gray, The Least of My Brothers : Matthew 25: 31-46 : A History of Interpretation, SBL Dissertation Series 114 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989). 462pp. $44.06.

Denny Burk is Associate Professor of New Testament and Dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.