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The ‘Least of These’ Is Not The Poor

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least_of_theseThere are a lot of phrases that people assume are in the Bible that are not only not in the text but may not even be biblical (cleanliness is next to godliness, God helps those who help themselves, etc.). There are also a number of biblical ideas that are in the Bible but are attributed to the wrong passage.

A common example is use of the biblical phrase “least of these” (Matt. 25:40, 46) to refer to our fellow citizens who are in poverty or in need. The Bible has a lot to say about poverty—but this phrase is not necessarily talking about the poor. As Denny Burk explains, this is a classic case of right doctrine, wrong text:

In this text, “brothers” is not a generic description of people created in the image of God. Jesus reserves the term “brothers” for those who are his disciples—those who believe and obey his word. And what are these “brothers” doing? They are preaching Jesus’ message.

In Matthew 10:7, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel of “the kingdom of heaven.” They are supposed to preach from house to house. They are supposed to give a greeting of peace to anyone who receives them. They are to shake the dust off their feet when someone does not receive them. Why? Because when people receive Jesus’ messengers, it’s a sign that they are receiving Jesus’ message. When people reject Jesus’ messengers, it’s a sign that they are rejecting Jesus’ message.

He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me… And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones [cf. ‘the least of these’ in 25:40, 45] even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward (Matthew 10:40-42).

Likewise, in Matthew 18, Jesus refers to his disciples three times as “little ones” (vv. 6, 10, 14) with a term closely related to “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40, 46. So when Jesus talks about feeding, clothing, and caring for the “least of these” inMatthew 25:40, he’s talking about his disciples. And he’s saying that if you mistreat them, it’s like mistreating him–which should be no surprise to us because we are his body. Anyone who rejects Jesus’ disciples by mistreating them is rejecting Jesus. In short, how you treat Jesus’ disciples reveals how you treat Jesus. How you have received Jesus’ messengers shows how you have received Jesus’ message. Your works will reveal whether you have believed the gospel or not. And your works will bear witness either for you or against you at the judgment.

Rather than being about the poor, it’s about those who are rejected for sharing the gospel with a neighbor or shunned because they stand up for their Christian beliefs. As Burk adds,

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.

And for those who think this is an peculiar reading of the text, Burk provides several example to show that, “This interpretation is in fact the majority view among commentators both contemporary and ancient.”

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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