Least of These?

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

How often have you hear someone talk about mission to “the least of these”?

Does that phrase bother you? Does it make you uncomfortable?

It does me.

It separates the world into two groups, the least of these, and…  The not the least? The greater? The privileged? The superior?

I have no doubt the phrase is used with good intentions, to justify or explain why we do charitable works,  but I’m not sure it is always used thoughtfully. We do mission work because Jesus said to and we use this expression, the least of these because it is the very language of Jesus. And if Jesus said it, it should be okay for us to say it, right?

Except we need to read this phrase in its context;

 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’     Matt 25:31-46

Right before this section, Jesus tells the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and the parable of the Talents. Right after this section, the chief priests and elders decide to kill Jesus and Jesus is anointed with ointment.  This is all part of the fifth teaching discourse in Matthew’s gospel. It is a complex discourse that is about the final establishment of God’s kingdom and about the difficult circumstances of Matthew’s community in the present time.  Jesus may be talking about  something more than Christians doing good works.

Scholars think that the phrase “least of these” doesn’t actually mean the poor, especially in the first century when essentially everyone was “the poor”.  Jesus may  have been talking about his disciples.

“The least is an intensive form of the term “little ones” which refers to vulnerable and marginal disciples. In 10:42 it names disciples in mission and positive response to their mission. In 18:6 the little ones are those who humble themselves like marginal children and “believe in me”. … The term my brothers and sisters, apart from natural birth relations refers to disciples who do God’s will as revealed by Jesus.  (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious ReadingOrbis Books, 496)

Is Jesus talking about his disciples or about the poor?  Aren’t we supposed to take care of the poor? If Jesus is talking about the disciples, does this get us off the hook caring for the poor?

Well, no. We don’t stop caring for the poor. There are plenty of other places in the Bible where Jesus tells us and shows us that we are to care for the poor.  But for us 21st century Western Christians, I think we might need to work with this text a little differently.

Jesus calls his followers the least of these.  Is that who we are?  Is that how we think of ourselves?

When most of us think about mission work, we think about us (the ones with abilities and resources) giving to them (folks without abilities and resources). We give from a place of power and privilege. That is the reality we live in.

This text calls us to think about how we view ourselves and those we want to help.

Do we see ourselves as better, privileged, blessed?

How do we see the “other”? Lesser? Poor? Needy?

How does the “other” see us?

Are we seeing each other through the lens of material possession and social status?  Or do we see each other as beloved children of God. Does our value come from what we have,  or what we can do? Or does it come from whom we are- beloved children, little ones, of God?

What does it mean for us when Jesus calls his followers the least of these?

How can we be the least of these?

Is it possible?

What has to change?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

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