My favorite verse in the Bible is when Jesus says, by way of parable, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (NIV) It seems a very clear command to help the poor, the sick and the needy. But a Baptist theologian says it’s really about persecuted Christians:
Many poverty advocates have successfully invoked the phrase to motivate the masses and raise millions of dollars. Jesus himself said divine judgment in the afterlife would be doled out based upon how one treats the least of these. No wonder the phrase is one of the most frequently cited in the New Testament.
But could Mother Teresa and so many others have gotten it wrong? According to a growing chorus of prominent Bible scholars, Jesus was speaking about persecuted Christians rather than the poor. They claim their interpretation is consistent with the way the phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible and the majority view among Christians throughout history. But not everyone is buying it.
“’The least of these’ were missionaries of Jesus — the apostles and others — who had been persecuted and then suffered imprisonment for following and preaching,” says Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Mother Teresa, social justice advocates and liberation theologians have all colonized this term to their own agenda and made it about anyone poor.”
McKnight first encountered this way of understanding the phrase 30 years ago in a German dissertation while studying for his own doctorate. When you look at the New Testament Gospels where this phrase is used, McKnight wrote in his book “Kingdom Conspiracy,” it usually refers to followers of Jesus. To support this notion, McKnight notes that in this passage Jesus adds the phrase “brothers and sisters of mine.” (The Greek only says “brothers,” but it is generic.)
“No matter how many times I’ve said this, it seems not everyone cares how the terms are used in the New Testament,” he says. “They have followed Mother Teresa, and that’s that.”
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
It could not be more clear that he is explicitly condemning them who do not help the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the sick. It is a lack of compassion and charity that is being condemned, and the punishment for this is going to hell. There is no mention whatsoever of Christians being persecuted. McKnight is completely full of shit, but he offers up a convenient excuse for right-wing Christians to ignore their obligation to help the less fortunate.