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.
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.”
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.