Who Really Cares About “The Least of These”? Matthew 25:31-46


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.

Covenant paradigm social justice care for poor persecuted persecution

New Testament Concentric Care

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.

Why Caring for the Persecuted Is a Christian Priority


So our friends and family back east—especially in Kentucky—are experiencing one of the toughest winters on record. Even now, there is snow on top of ice on top of snow. Out here in California, we are experiencing a drought, although we got a few sprinkles overnight (and snow in the mountains). And, so far, the drought has not caused a famine in the land.

Christian needs ministryImagine if it had. Imagine a drought so bad that it caused a famine in which food became scarce and lives were being lost (like the 2011 drought—and famine—suffered in the Horn of Africa, from which thousands died, and 90,000 kids are still in danger). In a situation like that, would a Christian be obligated to share food with others? If not obligated, then wouldn’t the Christian at least want to share food with others to keep them alive?

Feeding the poor is an on-going ministry need and a need which nearly everyone agrees ought to be met. What’s more basic than food and water, right? And Christians—where possible—are obligated to help secure these necessities for those in need.  But there is a Christian hierarchy for meeting physical needs. Consider the severe principle Paul lays down to Timothy:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).

In its context, this verse is speaking of caring for widows in your own family. Don’t have the church (or the government!) provide for your widowed mother, grandmother, or aunt—take care of her yourself because you are her family. If you don’t take care of the need in your own family, then you don’t understand the faith.

This idea of taking care of family first is found throughout Scripture and throughout the New Testament. In fact, it is such a basic notion that to fail in this regard would be not just falling below the gospel standard of morality—but below even the standard recognized by the pagan culture. Everyone knows that family comes first.

Because family comes first, Paul actually views caring for poor and needy Christians as a priority over caring for poor and needy non-Christians. Does this sound strange? Harsh? It shouldn’t.  This principle is woven from the fabric of basic familial priority: Feed your family first. Paul says it this way in Galatians:

“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Returning to our hypothetical drought and famine, we can think of the matter this way. If we were living through a famine, we would naturally feed ourselves and our own families first. It would be neither heroic nor laudable to feed our neighbors’ kids, while allowing our own to starve. Each father must provide for his own.

In Galatians 6:10, Paul is not intending to drive a wedge between serving the needy church and serving the needy pagans. The command is “do good to all.” So, there is no diminishing of social justice, feeding the poor, or loving our neighbor. Yet, there would be something terribly dysfunctional if we were to concentrate our care on those outside the faith, while we left our own faith family to starve, suffer, and die.

The world will not be sure that you are Jesus followers if you simply love the poor and feed the needy.   Jesus made this point plainly for His disciples in John 13:35: “By this,” Jesus says, “all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” The need hierarchy of the New Testament demands that we take care of our brothers and sisters suffering on account of Christ. Loving one another will itself witness to the world that we are Christians.

As Tom Schreiner writes in his commentary on Galatians: “A hierarchy is established, so that a priority is assigned to those who are fellow believers.” Our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world are fellow believers. How do we make them our priority?