What could be more obvious than the fact that Christians must take care of the outcast, the poor, and the prisoners? Ministries of mercy like feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and clothing the scantily clad are services expected by Christ of His followers. As Matthew 25 makes plain, the righteous will engage in these ministries, while the wicked will proved to have neglected them in the end.
But obvious facts don’t always capture the complete story. So it is with Jesus’s instructions concerning “the least of these” in Matthew 25:31-46. At the end of the narrative, Jesus casts out the wicked for having neglected the care of the naked, the strangers, and the thirsty, for He says “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” –A strong word indeed which demonstrates Jesus’s presence with the poor. But which poor, any and every poor person on the planet?
It seems to me the rest of the story is told in the positive version of Jesus’s instruction about caring for “the least of these.” Back in 25:40, Jesus praises the righteous for the ministries of mercy they have completed:
“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
The use of the term “my brothers” is not insignificant. Grant Osborne notes, “It is unlikely that unbelievers would be called ‘my brothers and sisters.’” Osborne notes further that Jesus calls his followers his brothers and sisters earlier in Matthew’s gospel (12:48-50). What is the significance of “the least of these” being a reference to those in the covenant community? There are at least 3 significant consequences for reading the text this way.
First, it means the world will be judged for how it relates to Christ and Christians—particularly those in need. Jesus cares for, loves, and has committed himself to his followers. When the world rejects, despises, persecutes, and oppresses his sheep, He rightly assigns them to a proper judgment. Osborne sums up clearly this point concerning the thrust of Matthew 25:
“So Jesus’ message is that the world will be judged on the basis of how it treats those ‘little people’ whom God is sending to it.”
Second, it means Christians, too, will be judged not just for their ministries of mercy to the poor but for their concern explicitly for the persecuted poor. Christ, obviously, is concerned for His sheep. Why would Christians neglect them? The New Testament expects Christians to care for family first and then extend that familial love to the strangers and aliens among them. Too often we skip over the Christian family in our witness to evangelize the needy in the world. Is it not possible to accomplish the latter without neglecting the former? Jesus did not neglect his own in his extending mercy to the world. Neither should we.
Third, it means that the presence of Christ abides in the midst of the persecuted church. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus first framed the kingdom people as the poor and the persecuted. The first Beatitude states that the kingdom belongs to the poor. The last Beatitude completes the thought, stating that the kingdom belongs to the persecuted. The poor, persecuted follower of Christ is the one with whom Christ—himself destitute and persecuted—identifies (cf. Matthew 5:1-12 and Beatitudes). The summary of the Beatitudes is a “Beatitude reprise” in which Jesus proclaims that those persecuted on account of Him are the blessed in the earth who ought to be rejoicing.
So the conclusion of the matter is that if we care for Christ at all, then we will care for the impoverished and persecuted church in whose midst He dwells in love.