Some of my Best Friends are the Least of These

Some of my Best Friends are the Least of These June 5, 2019

With conferences like this one still in existence, there is no respite for the weary.  Those still residing in the two-story universe of modernity are, again, making sure we are aware of our folly.  They need us to know that an emphasis upon caring for the physical needs of the poor and marginalized, will almost certainly compromise, ironically, the Good News.

We will say again, however, that the Good News is social justice and is such before it is ever anything about a life in the sweet ever-after.  The Gospel is first what is noted in Luke 4: 14-22, before it is ever anything about going to heaven—which, as NT Wright has noted, is mostly misunderstood to begin with, anyway.

I would like to consider the area of social justice (bad words to conservative evangelicals—for many, it gets them more upset than the word Trump used to describe what he liked to grab when, “courting” women), in the light of Matthew 25:31-46, the well known “least of these” passage—because it is so pertinent to the discussion.  There is a common refrain from conservative evangelicals when it comes to this passage.  They are quick to point out that the “least of these” means either Christians or missionary Christians.  Then, they are quick to do something else.

Knowing full well this appears to be a rather self-centered reading and one indifferent to non-Christians, they let us know that, yes, everywhere else in the Bible we are told to care for the poor and marginalized, regardless.  Still, they just don’t want us to read this passage that way.  This always strikes me as the type of qualification we might hear from the self-unaware white guy, who, when caught in a prejudicial remark or objection, assures us that some of their best friends are, non-white.  “But still…,” they add.

To me, the objection seems disingenuous and self-unaware—especially in light of current events and disagreements over how we should understand social justice.  This may be the real objection: I don’t like the fact this passage seems to bolster the progressive case for the priority of social justice—a priority mind you—even linked to our salvation.  No, the person objecting always wants us to know, they just really-really care about correct and proper interpretation.  Oh, okay.  Got it.

Let’s consider such, then.  There are several reasons to believe the passage is speaking of people in general, and not just Christians.  These reasons are echoed in other sources, but I’ve taken these primarily from this one.

Reason 1: The interpretation the least of these are Christians/missionaries is, textually, based upon making connections between the terms “least of these” and “brothers and sisters” and similar terms elsewhere in Matthew and the New Testament.  However, as noted by Hultgren:

“While cross-referencing is essential in the study of terms, it should be subservient to the study of the overall structure and content of the text at hand.” (Pg. 321) And then in a footnote, Hultgren quotes E. Watson:

“No one, reading Matt 25:31-46 in isolation, would suppose that its subject is the treatment of Christian evangelists.”  And, I would add, or Christians in general.  Side note: Please then, don’t make much about a, “plain reading of the text,” in other cases, unless one is willing to make it here.

Reason 2:  The term “least” of these (έλάχιστοϚ) can be used of a disciple or Christ follower, but it is better suited to denote anyone, who, in the estimation of people in general are considered small in rank and importance.  This would include those in need physically, who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the outside, the unfortunate ones.  Hultgren writes:

“…it is precisely because they are not his disciples in any obvious way that Jesus can call them ‘the least’ of his ‘brothers.’  They are ‘the least’ purely because of God’s special favor for them, which Jesus here declares.  It is certainly much simpler—looking for the plainest meaning of the text—to consider ‘the least’ as referring to persons who are actually and continuously despised and neglected in the course of common life, and then declared Jesus’ brothers by grace alone, than to think of them as disciples of Jesus, who may or may not be despised at any time or place.” (Pg. 322)

The point of the first two reasons is that the interpretation conservatives are trying to make based on how the terms are used elsewhere, the textual case, is not as strong a case as they seem to think.  And, this is the primary reason for their interpretation.

Reason 3:  A common defense of the interpretation the least of these refers only to Christians, is that the interpretation is the most common in antiquity.  Hultgren responds:

“It has been said that the interpretation favored here… [that the least of these are people in general] …is actually not very old, and that it became important only in the nineteenth century.  That in itself would not be cause for rejecting it.  But it should be pointed out that it has been expressed from early times, for example, in the writings of Cyprian, Commodianus, and John Chrysostom, in the Rule of St. Benedict, and occasionally in the works of Jerome.” (Pg. 324)

Reason 4:  In relation to reason 3, Hultgren also points out that the interpretation the least of these refers to all people and not just Christians, “prevails in various studies of NT ethics.” (Pg. 318)

Reason 5:  Finally, here is, I think, the strongest reason for the interpretation the least are people in general and not just Christians.  I will quote Hultgren at length:

“The persons on the right and left are astonished to hear that they have, or have not, served the king who speaks to them.  If the persons on the right had served the representatives of the king—feeding them, clothing them, welcoming them (regardless of their being strangers), and visiting them while sick or in prison—and if the representatives had been missionary disciples of Jesus, why would those on the right find that out only at the last judgment?  If we are to adopt the view that “the least” are disciples, it follows that the last judgment passage portrays a scene in which the Son of man rewards those who knowingly served him in the world, that is, those who had received and served disciples who came in his name.  But that is precisely what we do not have.” (emphasis added)

He goes on in the same section:

“They did not know that the persons they neglected to serve came to them in the name of Jesus.  And if the unfortunates never identified themselves, how are they to be distinguished from any other unfortunates of the world?”  (Pg. 322)

Any textual or exegetical case, the use of terms, would have to give way to what is clearly the best, and most cogent, hermeneutical understanding of the text given the, “overall structure and content of the text…”  I would suggest then, that content, interior consistency, structure, and context, should over-ride conclusions derived mostly from the comparison of terms and their usage elsewhere.  Further, conclusions, which go against the entire scope of Scripture when it comes to the identification of the poor and marginalized.

There are many other reasons to believe the least of these refers to people in general, in all times and places, and not just or only Christians.  However, the above five are some of the more compelling.  I readily admit the passage could be read the way conservative evangelicals believe it should be read, and such is a reasonable interpretation.  I just don’t think it the best one or, indeed, the correct one for all the reasons noted and others.

Conservative evangelicals protest, it seems to me, a little too much when it comes to this text.  On one hand, they are quick to qualify their objection by telling us they know the preponderance of Scripture compels us to do what is spoken of in Matthew 25: 31-46, for all people, not only Christians or the “Godly.”  But, on the other hand, even admitting such, they assert Matthew 25:31-46 is the exception.

To such, we should point out, not only the inconsistency and not very subtle attempt to slight the social justice movement, but also that their interpretation is not very compelling in most respects, including textually.  But, more importantly, it is not very compelling hermeneutically, nor if we compare it to the entire ethical sweep and arc of Scripture as a whole.

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  • FINALLY, someone is assembling a panel of older white men to tell us the proper role of social justice in Christianity. AT LAST these voices can be heard. Thank you, SBC!

  • otrotierra

    They can take the honest route and just retitle their all-white male panel: “The Dangers of Concepts We’ve Never Studied and Therefore Know Nothing About.”

  • Alan Stanley

    Darrell, thanks for this post. I’m particularly interested in it as I have written on this passage (Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works?, Wipf & Stock, 2006) and am currently addressing it again — though not in the same amount of detail as in 2006 — in a book on the Sermon on the Mount. I take the view that you label “conservative evangelical.” What I find interesting though is the motivations ascribed to those who hold this view. Now of course I cannot speak for all who hold the view and you may well be right when it comes to the masses. I simply don’t know, though I do honestly wonder if you have fallen into stereotyping? However, for myself, I actually would be happier to hold to the view you have espoused here, I really would. Furthermore, I can see at least one good reason to hold it: Matthew seems to have in mind Christians who have become too insular — ‘churchy’ we might say — and is telling them in no uncertain terms to get “out” and rub shoulders with those on the margins. In short: stop being hypocrites (Matt 6:1-18; chap. 23), God’s people are marked by mercy and love (e.g., Matt 7:12; 9:13; 12:7; 18:21-35; 22:36-40; 23:23), rather than profession (e.g., 3:8-10; 7:21-23). One’s life need not be marked by what we think are great things (see 7:21-23), small acts driven by compassion for others are what counts (e.g., 10:42). In Jesus’ day it is the Pharisees who are excluding the marginalized and ‘unclean’ and in the process they exclude themselves from the kingdom, which is where Matthew 25:31-46 comes in. However, when it comes to interpreting this passage I myself am not motivated by anything other than to understand the passage correctly. I would like it to say what you are saying it says. And to be honest, I do not have a problem theologically with your view. The problem is, as you have pointed out, there are cross references in Matthew that seem to have a bearing on this passage. Now I understand that you have put the weight on other things and see these cross-references as subordinate to the overall structure of Matthew. In my mind though there are too many cross references to rule out any other interpretation apart from the “conservative” one; furthermore, the cross references help form part of the overall theme and structure of Matthew. Take 10:40-42 for example:

    40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

    This passage could well be a summary for what we see in 25:31-46. To name but two clear connections: 1) you see the theme of Christ identifying with the one welcomed as in 25:31-46; 2) you see the theme of “reward” which shows up again in 16:27 (“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done”), a verse that has so many parallels with 25:31-46 you’d have to be asleep to miss them. It’s true that no one reading 25:31-46 “in isolation”, as you say, would think it is talking about “Christian evangelists.” The problem is that Matthew’s audience did not read this passage in isolation and have been given plenty of clues along the way as to who these “brothers” (and sisters) are.

    So in the end, while I would indeed like to hold to your interpretation — its less complex, it hits home with a punch. However, if I look at the passage objectively (and you’ll have to trust me that I don’t have any theological axe to grind), I can’t see the view you have described here as trumping the conservative one. I am, however, willing to be convinced otherwise.

  • Darrell

    Alan, thank you for your comments and thoughts here. I’m not sure what would convince you otherwise, if the reasons presented do not suffice. Again, the view you hold is a reasonable one and has a good textual basis. I just don’t think such alone is enough here. I think once the passage is considered from a wider perspective, with all the factors one would consider in addition to the textual ones, the interpretation the least are people in general is still the better interpretation. It strikes me as particularly odd and completely out of step with the rest of Scripture to say this verse is telling us that the salvation of each (even if as by grace) is dependent upon how they treated, specifically Christians, and not people in general. Since salvation is more a mystery than formula, since it is likely we are being saved (rather than thinking of salvation as a single point in time), then wouldn’t it make more sense to treat all people this way and not even focus upon whether they are “Christian” or not? If so, then again, it would be the best way to read the passage in question. Otherwise, our interpretation based on textual factors alone may be “correct” but is also moot. Is that the best way to understand a passage of Scripture?

  • Alan Stanley

    Darrell, appreciate the reply. I agree with each one of your points. The textual clues, admittedly, are very weighty for me; not because they make a better theological point — I’m really okay with the point you are making. Anyway . . . are there any articles or books that have helped you think through the issues? Thanks for the dialog.

  • Darrell

    Along with the source (Hultgren) noted in the post, this one is good too: