By Erick Erickson
But over time, more and more people think it is the former. The movie Snow White has a similar one. You probably say it, “Mirror, mirror on the wall — who is the fairest one of all?” It is actually “Magic mirror, on the wall — who is the fairest one of all?”
In the same way, ask who “the least of these” is in Matthew 25:40-45 and you probably think it is the poor, generally. “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Matt 25:45 ESV).
That is the common view today, but it is neither the most accurate view or even the predominate view in church history. It is most common today because much of liberal theology premises its call for the social gospel on this passage.
Matthew 25:31-46 is about the final judgment. In the context of the social gospel, if you are helping the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, etc. then you are engaging in a works based salvation. The rest of the New Testament’s calls for moral living are overshadowed by this passage on judgment.
33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
Matt 25:33-39 (ESV).
In general context it does seem to be salvation premised on taking care of the poor and needy. The problem is that, as Denny Burke noted, it is “a classic case of right doctrine, wrong text.”
Yes, Christians must take care of the poor. Yes, while Protestants believe salvation comes from faith alone, judgment will be on our works. There are ample places in the Bible demanding Christians take care of widows, orphans, the poor, and refugees.
The problem is that Matthew 25 is not that place, but many people think it is. In fact, some twitter friends of mine told me I was wrong when I said Matthew 25 did not mean the “poor in general,” but the passage shows why it is not the poor in general.
Let’s break it down, but know two things starting out.
First, none of us should presume that the Holy Spirit speaks only to us. It is silly to think that our interpretation of a passage is the accurate because that is how we read it. We should never be opposed to seeing what others have seen in the passage and asking what the consensus on the passage is.
Second, in that regard, know that if you think the passage really does mean “the poor” generally, you are up against Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, Augustine, Anselm of Laon, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin among others. (Source) Yes, this is one of the passages of the Bible where the Eastern, Western, and Protestant churches have long been in agreement.
Again, the view on this passage did not change until the right of the social gospel of liberal theology in the 19th century.
The key to understanding the passage is that the second part, on the goats, mirrors but abridges the first part on sheep.
Here is the passage where the sheep respond to Christ:
37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
Now here is the passage where the goats respond to Christ:
44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?
The goats are saying the same thing, but in retelling it Christ has not used as many words. The sheep says “when did we see you hungry and feed you” while the goats say “when did we see you hungry.” The “and feed you” is implied by the last portion “and did not minister to you.”
In the same way, the “least of these” is abridged.
In Matthew 25:40, Christ says
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.’
In Matthew 25:45, he abridges it saying
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
Notice the difference? He left out “brothers” in the second. It is implied, but not there, just like the other bits in the section on goats are implied.
So who then are the brothers?
Well, the Greek used is more akin to “brotherhood” than “brothers” but both were used in terms of his disciples.
But Matthew is written by one author. What about other uses of “the least of these” in Matthew?
Again, Denny Burk has done the hard work for us and the pattern holds. Each time “least of these” or “little ones” occurs in Matthew, they are references to treatment of Christ’s disciples.
So what is Matthew 25:31-46 saying?
The passage is about how the world responds to and treats Christ’s disciples. This is why there is so much outrage today at me for pointing this out. It is not just the social gospel that gets premised in Matthew 25, but that Matthew 25 also condemns those who would force Christians to violate their faith for the world. Here’s Denny Burke again:
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. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.
In the last day, all the people who thought they could get away with mistreating Jesus’ brothers and sisters are going to come face to face with reality. They are going to come face to face with their judge. And they are going to find out what justice is. And they won’t be taunting or mocking. They are going to be crying out for the mountains to fall on them to shield them from the Lamb of God come in judgment (Rev. 6:16-17). But there won’t be a mountain big enough or a hole deep enough for them to hide in. Jesus will arise as a dread champion for his people. And he will close the mouths of the scoffers and the persecutors once and for all.
It is worth, at this point, reiterating that if you are wedded to the idea that Matthew 25 is about the poor in general, I probably cannot change your mind. The Bible is explicit that Christians must help the poor, but Matthew 25 is not. And though you may be tied to it, just understand that you are up against the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose, the Venerable Bede, Augustine, Anselm of Laon, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, and many other Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant church fathers.
I would suggest the burden is on you to show it actually does mean the poor in general. I would also note that this is why Christians have an obligation to help Christian refugees around the world. We are to take care of Christ’s brothers and sisters, who are his disciples.
Other passages tell us to help the poor in general. This one specifically calls for us to help our Christian brothers and sisters.