Sheep of Justice: Who Are the Least of These in Matthew 25?

Are you sure you know what a passage in the Bible means? Be sure to check yourself before you wreck yourself (and anyone who will listen to you). One Sunday night I planned to teach on the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. I was looking forward to the opportunity to do what I had done numerous times before – press my hearers to abandon their selfishness and involve themselves in ministry to the poor and hurting of the world. But as I studied and wrestled with this parable I ran into a problem – that’s not what Jesus was saying.

You know the parable. At the end of time the Son of Man will come in his glory and gather all nations before him. He will separate out the people like sheep and goats based on how they treated the “least of these”. Those who gave them food and drink, who welcomed them, clothed them, and visited them while sick and in prison are the sheep. Those who did not are the goats. The sheep depart to eternal life while the goats depart to eternal punishment. So this is a pretty big deal.

Now for those who think Jesus is teaching we must earn our way to heaven through acts of social justice let me put your mind at ease.  When understanding Jesus’ parables it is important to know who his audience is. In this case, it is his disciples (Matt. 24:1) who are already in the kingdom of heaven. This parable is not telling them how to enter the kingdom but how those in it will live. If this parable was addressed to the crowds it would be a different story, but it’s not (?). It is telling those who are already sheep how sheep will live their lives between Jesus’ first and second coming.

Now for those who think we are off the hook, let me disturb your peace. The reason it seems Jesus sends people to eternal life based on these actions is because he meant it to seem that way. Actions of mercy to the “least of these” flow so naturally from saving faith that if someone does not do them it brings into question whether or not they’ve met Jesus. To put it another way – feeding the hungry and clothing the naked won’t save you; only faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection will do that. But that kind of faith necessarily produces acts of mercy and kindness to the “least of these”. Sheep act a certain way. If you don’t act like a sheep you’re probably a goat.

Ministry to the “least of these” is vitally important for anyone claiming to be a follower of Christ. So who are they? Anyone that is hungry, thirsty, poor, sick, or in prison, right? After all, this is one of the key passages for those claiming Jesus’ message was ultimately one of social justice – not one of personal salvation.

Setting aside Jesus’ overall message, that is not his message in this parable. The “least of these” are not just anyone, but the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or imprisoned who are followers of Christ and thus part of His body. While we’re familiar with the phrase “the least of these” we are less familiar with the two critical words that follow it – “my brothers”. Who are Jesus’ brothers? I’ll let him answer from Matthew 12:49-50:

And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

A brother of Jesus is his disciple who does the will of his father; in other words, a Christian! Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus call anyone a brother if they do not believe in him. Now the parable begins to make more sense. The people in prison sheep are to visit are probably persecuted Christians. The reason meeting the needs of the “least of these” is like ministering to Jesus himself is because they are part of the body of Christ. Craig Blomberg in the New American Commentary explains the phrase “the least of these my brothers” this way:

Who are these brothers? The majority view throughout church history has taken them to be some or all of Christ’s disciples since the word “least” is the superlative form of the adjective “little ones”, which without exception in Matthew refers to the disciples, while brothers in this Gospel when not referring to literal biological siblings, always means spiritual kin.

The parable of the sheep and the goats shows Jesus’ followers the critical importance of caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world after his first coming and before his second and may be the fuel behind the radical sharing of the early church in Acts 2:45.

Two questions arise. First, can’t we go on applying this parable to all of the needy in the world? We can’t because it would be a lie. We would be misrepresenting Jesus Christ and using the Bible for our own purposes. Second, won’t Christians lose their passion for the starving and suffering of the world? No they won’t because Jesus addresses the needs of those outside the faith elsewhere. While they may not be our brothers, they are our neighbors who we are commanded to love as ourselves as seen most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Just because the Bible teaches something, doesn’t mean it teaches it in every passage. Let us faithfully teach each passage of Scripture without having to bend it to our agenda. At least that’s probably what a sheep would do.

-Brian

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5 thoughts on “Sheep of Justice: Who Are the Least of These in Matthew 25?

  1. Brian, you are still faithfully teaching truth, I see. 🙂 I didn’t know this about Matt. 25, but now I do! And now, I can correctly teach it to all my little M-Fuge-ers this summer when I come across it during the Fuge MTET. Hope you and EEJ are doing fantastic!!

  2. I appreciate how you’ve wrestled with this. I would add this for you to think about, however: the Greek word Jesus uses for “brothers” in this parable, can also mean “fellow countrymen” which would clearly include the poor and needy outside of the ranks of believers. It’s easy to read the English word “brothers” and naturally associate it with fellow believers, but Jesus was careful to use a word that included far more.

    • Hopefully Ben, you’ll get to read this; if not, maybe it will help future readers. Fortunately, I had to take a fair amount of biblical Greek to get my masters degree, so I have considered the Greek in reference to Matt. 25.

      You have committed the exegetical fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer (described by D.A. Carson in his excellent work “Exegetical Fallacies”). You have imported every possible meaning of the word “adelphos” into the passage. The question is not “what CAN adelphos mean?” but what does the word mean in this context?

      Adelphos is THE word for “brother” in the New Testament. It is translated as “brother” over 100 times. Anyone who knows their U.S. cities knows “adelphos” means brother (PhilADELPHIA = city of brotherly love, not city of countrymen love), In fact, there is no other word for brother in the NT. I would have to have a pretty powerful reason in the context to abandon the most natural meaning of the word for a secondary meaning. I simply don’t see anything in Matthew 25 to warrant that. It is used by Matthew 22 times in his gospel to refer either to a brother by blood or by belief in Christ. Even worse for your case is that fact that “adelphos” is nowhere translated in the NT as “fellow countrymen”. When an NT author wants to say countrymen he uses the word “genos” or “sumfuletais”.

      If I were to ignore the most natural meaning of the word and use it in a way the New Testament never does by translating it “fellow countrymen” I would still have one more problem. Jesus’ fellow countrymen were the Jews. Therefore, Matthew 25 would only apply to doing good to the Jews, not just to anyone in need.

      I hope this helps as you wrestle with this passage!

  3. Came across this after googling, “who are the least of these”. I love it! I love your background knowledge, which I rely on because I will do all that I can to know the word of God without actually studying Greek, and I love your honesty. Thanks for helping me to clarify what I am reading and what I think Jesus is saying.

  4. What surprises me is that in commentaries and blogs (virtually all btw) the authors are using all their precious exegetical energy on who the least of these are. Almost all of them start the way you did as if your view is the minority view. It is the clear majority view. I have never (not hyperbole, truth, ‘never’) read a commentary that does not spend excruciating time saying who the least are, namely believers.

    My question is why? You alluded to it, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook for He has already said we are the neighbor who is to show mercy on whomever needs it, so then why all the energy restating who it is?

    I believe it is this: this passage specifically defines the redeemed person at judgment day. While the Samaritan parable is ‘good stuff’ this one is a ‘Am I a sheep or goat?’ story. Much bigger deal. So the saints DO need to narrow the field a bit, justify their disobedience, let themselves off the hook. Is it possible that Jesus was speaking in concert with the ‘who is my neighbor?’ question? Isn’t it more likely that saints today are ‘trying to justify themselves’ just like the Pharisees then, trying to narrow the field?

    I suspect so, usually commentators spend much time reacting to errors of the past (so in this passage ‘good works don’t save’ gets a lot of run) but there is virtually unanimous agreement that this passage addresses care for saints. Here’s what it also says, we didn’t know it. When I am a good neighbor (the other passage) many times I am helping a believer in whom Christ lives and I am helping Him not by extension or by representation but saints are actually one with their Lord so we are actually helping Him.

    But the ‘we didn’t know’ phrase may also allude to one of God’s elect children who have yet to be brought to life, but the Father is active by the Spirit drawing them to Jesus. If this is true then although their adoption has not yet taken place, it is sure, and my care is then for my brother even though I do not yet know that he is to be my adopted brother when the Father brings him to life and into the family.

    I struggle to sort it all out, but I know the saints are prone to justify themselves in their disobedience and interpret themselves out of harms way and I think Jesus may be saying much more than that.

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