Church folks are very likely to hear members of society who are considered “the poor” (or the ones who are seen to face some other kind of oppression or large-scale difficulty) referred to as “the least of these.” And I would assume that in pretty much every case, good intentions lie behind it. The “least of these” are mentioned as such because they are the suffering members of our society that the church is called to help.
This is based in Matthew 25:31-46, where, in Jesus’s apocalyptic vision of final judgment, those who provide food, drink, and clothing and share human contact with those in need (i.e., the “least of these” [v. 45] or “the least of these my brothers” [v. 40]) are welcomed into the kingdom because when they provide these needs they ultimately are doing so for the “king” (who in this vision is taken to be Jesus and/or God). (And, also, those who do not provide these needs do not ultimately do so to the king, and so they are excluded from the kingdom.)
However, aside from the fact that this is a pretty clumsy expression when taken straight out of its context of Matthew 25:31-46 (these … what? least how?), there are two major reasons that we should drop this habit altogether:
- The ones referred to as “the least of these” in Matthew 25 are most likely members of the Jesus-following community, not members of the general society.
- For this reason and for other reasons just as valid, there is not–and should not be–a distinction between “those” who are “the least” and “we” who are not.
As for the first reason, the phrase “the least of these/these littlest ones” found in Matthew 25:31-46 is the less common superlative form (found only here in chapter 25) of an expression found only in Matthew (except for Luke 17:2) which may be translated “the little of these/these little ones.” This expression is always used to refer to those who are part of the Jesus-following community (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14).
This connection between this phrase and the Jesus-following community is made even more explicit by the presence of “brothers” in the first occurrence of the expression in v. 40. Aside from the references to literal nuclear families (e.g., 1:2, 4:21), “brothers” is most likely not applied in Matthew to humanity in general but to the Jewish community and/or siblings in the new family centered around Jesus (e.g., 5:23-24, 47; 7:3-5; 18:15-35). The most important illustration of this is in 12:49-50, where Jesus even redefines “brother” (and “sister” and “mother”) as those following him, or those doing the will of God (cf. 28:10).
So, in Matthew 25:31-46, when the king in Jesus’s vision describes the ones having their needs provided as “the least of these” and the “least of these my brothers,” it is not a reference to anybody in the broader society who is destitute or in prison or is in poor health. It is a reference to members of the Jesus-following community who happen to have specific needs that the community should meet.
This insight, admittedly, rains on the parade especially of Christians who are keenly aware of the Jesus community’s responsibility in seeking justice in the world. We know that the church doesn’t exist in the world merely for itself but for those not yet part of it. But this knowledge tends to blind us from how the New Testament emphasizes how important it is that love and justice work their way out from the Jesus community into the world (see John 13:34-35; Galatians 6:10; 1 John 3:15-18; 1 John 4:20-21). Acts 4:34-35 even features the Jesus community taking shape as its members pool their resources so that all needs of the community are met.
(Lest this become another excuse for many church bodies to become even more inwardly-focused [and selfish], it is very important to remember how strange and vulnerable and socially-powerless the primitive Christian community was. They did not have the upper hand. Just being Christian would have made getting by much more difficult than it is for those of us in my culture, where the situation is basically reversed.)
I am certainly not the first to discover we have been misusing “least of these” phrase and I’m definitely not the first to try to correct the error. Other scholars have done the same. They affirm that we can’t on the basis of this passage draw a distinction between “we” in the church and “those out there” who are “the least of these.” But I want to take us a step further and explain the second reason why we should put an end to how we’ve been using this phrase.
Not only is there no warrant from the way “the least of these” is used in Matthew 25:31-46 for taking the phrase out of this context and applying it to those in society we see as in need, but there is also no warrant in this passage to make a distinction even within the Jesus-following community about those who are “the least of these.” And there are two reasons for this.
First, as we’ve already seen, “the least of these” or “these little ones” is a chiefly Matthean way of referring to people in the community of Jesus followers that occurs apart from their particular status of food, drink, and clothing supply, health, or whether they are in prison or not. Second–and far more importantly–it is harmful, indeed even “anti-community,” to draw such a distinction between people based on need. And this goes also for committing the overall mistake of calling people in society who are seen to be in need as “the least of these.”
Drawing a distinction between people based on their perceived need commits the sin which surfaces so often in Christian “missions”: the labeling, categorizing, and ultimately limiting of people by defining their personhood by their situation and by going even further in this mistake by defining “them” by how “we” are going to fulfill our duty upon them.
And I have emphasized “seen to be in need,” or “perceived need,” because we too quickly falsely assume these things and thereby see a person based on need instead of seeing a need based on people who are in particular situations.
Beyond how we can misconstrue and misunderstand other people placed in the “them” category by making the mistake of labeling people (which “the least of these” helps us to do), we should see how by doing so we are misconstruing and misunderstanding ourselves. That is, for others to be mistakenly labeled “the least of these” has us remain in ignorance of how we ourselves are in need. And we may even miss how we may have our needs met by people we have already placed in the category of those who receive our charity, advocacy, or service.
It is we, hearers of the Gospel in need of the community given to us, who are the least of these.
And so, finally, our charitable misapplication of “the least of these” to other people reinforces (oh-so-slyly) the distinction between “us” and “them” that lies at the heart of social and communal sin (see Ephesians 2:13-16). As God seems to have been determined about from the beginning, the mission starts with us and ends with an even larger “us.” The “we” of the community is not defined by standing in contrast to “them” on the outside, but is instead defined by living into the calling of mutual, inclusive love and care. This is not ultimately “outreach” into the community; this is inclusion into a community that God sees fit to expand as all socially-enforced distinctions are considered loss.