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Where Did the Poor Go?: Who Are the Least of These in Matthew?

Jeannine Brown


Who was Jesus referring to when he spoke of "the least of these"?

Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary
July 20, 2015

Editor's Note: In contemporary conversations about Christianity and justice, it's common to hear Jesus' words from Matthew 25 uttered: “...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” So we asked biblical scholar Jeannine Brown to weigh in with her perspective on the debate about the meaning of Jesus' phrase.

The Gospel of Matthew is in the news. As someone who has spent her academic career studying this New Testament book, I never thought I’d be able to utter that sentence. A single, powerful phrase from Matthew—“the least of these”—has become a firestorm for discussion of political rights and Christian responses and responsibilities. Although the phrase already had a history of popular usage by the likes of Mother Teresa, Denny Burk has recently suggested that “the least of these” might apply, not to the poor and destitute in our world, but to the “Christian baker, photographer, and florist” providing wedding services.

 

Those who were often viewed with contempt by society are those whom Jesus tells his followers to care for and value.

 

 

In other words, we’d do better to apply Jesus’ words to Christians who are persecuted, in this case for their refusal to accept same-sex partners as customers. Burk draws on one stream of biblical interpretation for his view—a stream we might call the exclusive interpretation (he calls it the “narrow interpretation” in his follow-up post). This interpretation has good historical precedents as well as contemporary supporters, as Jonathan Merritt illustrates in an RNS article.

Two Views on “The Least of These”: Exclusive and Inclusive

Burk rightly notes that two views on the meaning of “the least of these” have been and continue to be offered. The exclusive interpretation understands “the least” to be Christians because of the full phrase used in Matthew 25:40: “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (25:40). The alternate, inclusive view understands “the least” as all those who are poor—Christian or not (24:45).

The Exclusive Interpretation: Where Did the Poor Go?

My complaint with Burk is not that he offers an illegitimate exclusive interpretation, but that his specific interpretation and application are not exclusive enough!

You see, a sleight of hand happens toward the end of his discussion when he writes, “This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor.”

So here’s my question: Where did the poor go? Or for that matter, where did the other categories of “the least” go? The categories of people Jesus expressly identifies as “the least” in Matthew (25:35-36, 42-43) are…

  • The hungry
  • The thirsty
  • The stranger
  • The naked
  • The sick
  • Those in prison

Losing sight of the destitution that attends these people in the context of the passage and Matthew’s culture in order to apply the text today is not too exclusive. It is to be too inclusive—but in a wrong direction. If we ignore Matthew’s primary categories signaling destitution, disadvantage, and misfortune, then we might be able to conclude that “the least” are Christians in general (or a persecuted subset). But that would be to misread the text.

Why do I say this? Because Matthew’s language here, and elsewhere, presses in the following direction. His use of “the least” to point to a particular group is status language (like “greater” language in Matt 18:1). And his use of “the least” in Matthew 25 is connected to his use of “little ones” in chapters 10 and 18. Both in English translation and in the original Greek, “the least” (elachistoi) is the superlative form of “little ones” (mikroi). In all three passages, there is good reason to read this language as status terminology, especially against the backdrop of the highly status conscious Greco-Roman world of the first century. Those who were often viewed with contempt by society are those whom Jesus tells his followers to care for and value.

A good example comes in Matthew 18:10:

Be careful that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

Already, we can hear in these words the identification of a tendency—a tendency to ignore or disparage “little ones.” This makes a great deal of sense in a context where people with low status would be viewed as less than by those of high status. By the time we reach Matthew 25, we’ve been prepared to hear “the least” as a low status category. As a result, we won’t be prone to spiritualize this phrase to simply stand in for some or all Christians, persecuted or not.

For the exclusive interpretation to be valid, it must account for the poverty and destitution built into the description of “the least.” When some scholars argue that Matthew uses the “the least” to refer to Christian missionaries, they are no doubt aware that such persons in the first century might also be described as impoverished. Matthew portrays Jesus’ earliest followers not as wealthy but as common Galilean laborers who leave their work to travel with Jesus (e.g., 4:18-22; 19:27). Matthew’s Jesus is one who calls his disciples to be loyal to God, not money (6:24), and even tells a rich man to sell all he has to gain heavenly treasure (19:16-26).

So even on the exclusive interpretation, a careful reading of Matthew suggests seeing “the least” as Christians who are physically in need, potentially because they have left everything behind to pursue mission.

The Inclusive Interpretation: The Least of All People

But what about the inclusive interpretation of “the least?” As Burk and Merritt indicate, this interpretation has also received support across church history. And it remains a viable reading of “little ones” today. To give but one example, Davies and Allison—in their magisterial commentary on Matthew—support this inclusive interpretation of “the least.” One compelling reason for this reading of “the least” as all those in destitute circumstances is the parallel with Matthew’s Beatitudes (5:3-10). These kingdom blessings are framed universally and are not explicitly tied to following Jesus. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” for instance, has the potential for wide application.

My Perspective on “The Least of These”

These two streams of interpretation—the exclusive and the inclusive—exist for good reason. Both can be supported from a careful reading of Matthew. And determining which one grapples best with the whole of Matthew inevitably involves the interpreter’s own tradition and frame of reference.

But let me be clear about my own perspective. In both readings, the “least” fundamentally refers to those whose lot in life puts them on the low end of privilege, resources, and status. So applying this text to Christian business owners in the United States, who don’t fit the categories of hungry, thirsty, naked, and the like, is a stretch.

This tendency to ignore the socio-economic and status categories integral to Matthew 25 fits with evangelical propensities to spiritualize and so minimize “the least.”

Actions Over People: Intriguing and Troubling Applications of “The Least of These”

I recently did a focused study on Matthew 25:31-46 and its application in some evangelical sermons.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

What I found was both intriguing and troubling. Rather than paying attention to the category of “the least” as a status category, preachers tended to transfer the littleness factor to the actions of the righteous. The result was an emphasis on the small, insignificant deeds of Christians that no one but God notices but that will reap heavenly praise. Virtually absent from the sermons reviewed was the language of “the least” to describe people—and specifically people in poverty and prison. Gustavo Gutiérrez comments on such a focus on actions over people with an indictment for someone being “more interested in the charitable action he was performing than in the concrete person for whom it was done” (p. 200).

The surprise of those standing on either side of the king’s throne in this scene is not based on the surprising littleness of their actions: Wow, God noticed that little thing I did for someone else! No. It is based on the surprising solidarity of Jesus with those usually treated as if they are of little or no importance because of their impoverished circumstances.

Unexpected Solidarity with the Least

This unexpected solidarity is a key feature of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25. In the scenario he narrates, those on his right and left are both surprised by Jesus’ presence with the least: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” (25:44). Jesus indicates to both groups that their action or inaction for “the least” is action done or not done for Jesus himself (25:40, 45).

It is this element of surprise that confounds a straightforward reading of “the least” as Christian poor:

“Given the trajectory of Matthew’s Gospel, it is not unexpected to hear that all peoples will be judged by their responses to Jesus. What is surprising is that they encounter Jesus in their care for the needy. The element of surprise makes most sense if those who received aid were not transparently believers in Jesus (see 25:40).” [Brown, Matthew, 288]

Dick France, although he follows the exclusive interpretive tradition, provides a similar reading of this element of surprise. He suggests that the Jesus encountered by the righteous in their solidarity with the poor is not a Jesus recognized by his followers but “a Jesus incognito” (p. 959).

Therefore, while both interpretations of “the least” in Matthew 25 have good precedent and textual support from Matthew, I am more convinced by the inclusive than the exclusive interpretation. In my view, it makes more sense of Matthew’s “least of these” theology.

Yet for any and all of us who understand the Bible to speak beyond the times and locations of its origins, this passage from Matthew—with its compelling vision of mercy and justice to “the least”—has a tendency to subvert simple boundaries between us and them. For good reason, Ulrich Luz calls this an “explosive text”—it does not stay within prescribed boundaries (p. 309).

If we imagine ourselves among “the righteous” someday (25:37), then we might want to ask, “How will Jesus surprise us by his solidarity with the least among us? And on which side of the throne will we be found?

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