When it comes to talking about the most vulnerable in society, Christians often default to the phrase “least of these.” It comes from the tail end of a long conversation Jesus had with the disciples a few days before his death, recorded for us in the later third of Matthew’s gospel. In a rather vivid depiction of end times judgment, Jesus says that treating the “least of these” well or poorly will be tantamount to treating Jesus in the same way. And thereupon will hang the judgment.
The passage appears in all sorts of admonitions today. The homeless, the wanderer, the hungry or thirsty—they’re often framed as Jesus walking in our midst. And, if we want to be faithful to our savior, we’ll be kind and generous and compassionate to the least of these.
It’s a great sentiment. And it’s one of the more Christianly things we can pursue. After all, in his letter to the churches, James argued that caring for widows and orphans—the most helpless of that society—was the truest expression of our faith. The Bible does have a great deal to say about caring for each other, and especially the most vulnerable. It’s not really a stretch to understand Jesus’s words this way. It’s consistent with the rest of the Bible.
But in his gospel, Matthew isn’t actually talking about the poor when he quotes Jesus saying “least of these.”
He’s talking about his disciples, about you and me.
Matthew 24–25 records a long talk Jesus had with his disciples while sitting on the side of the Mount of Olives. The “Olivet Discourse” contains Jesus’s conversation about the way his disciples should think about and approach life in his absence while waiting for his return. Chapter 24 opens a window into Jesus’s perspective on life for his followers after he leaves: they’ll go into the nations proclaiming the gospel but face intense persecution. And despite the obstacles that the disciples will face, the gospel will go out into the world.
As Jesus moves through his long dialogue with his friends, he uses illustrations to emphasize their responsibility in his absence. They’ve been trusted with the greatest treasure they could ever hold—the message of good news and the worthiness of Jesus as savior. He expects them to be good stewards of that message and to live in constant expectation of his return.
By the time we get to the end of Matthew 25, Jesus has already used much of his time on the side of the mountain explaining to his disciples their part in the plan. But Matthew 25:31–46, he switches the camera and points it at those to whom the disciples are supposed to go.
After his disciples carry their message to the ends of the world, the judgment will come. The nations will be gathered before Jesus to be judged on how they responded to his emissaries. The whole scene remembers an early moment in his ministry where Jesus gave the disciples instructions for carrying the message of hope to the world (Matt. 10:1–15). They were to entrust themselves to people who received the gospel willingly and to accept food and shelter and care from them. And if those towns rejected them, the Twelve were to walk away in judgment.
Jesus concluded his instructions in Matthew 10 by pointing out that the way the nations treated his disciples was how they treated him. The disciples were supposed to understand that they were not only Jesus’s emissaries with their message but also with their physical presence: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt. 10:40).
And as Jesus paints the scene of judgment for the nations several chapters later, those same issues reappear. The nations are separated as sheep and goats and judged on one standard: how they received the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matt. 25:40).
The disciples were to go to the nations with the same level of humility as Jesus presented—without fanfare, entourage, or even much food. Those who received both the message and the messengers would receive life. And those who rejected Jesus’s emissaries would receive judgment. The nations’ care for the physical needs of Jesus’s disciples reflects their willingness to receive the message of the gospel.
Jesus’s parable of sheep and goats is a promise of comfort to the disciples. The mission he’d given them would bring persecution and hardship into their lives. Just as Jesus suffered (and would soon suffer), so too would his disciples (Matt. 10:24–25). Their hope lay in this promise—that their faithfulness to Jesus’s mission was not in vain. Those who persecuted them would face eternal judgment. And those who welcomed the disciples as if they were Jesus himself would receive blessing.
We live in a world that’s filled with hardship, suffering, and pain. One of the greatest ways we can demonstrate the hope of the gospel is by offering compassion to that hurting world. But the promise of the least of these is also for us—we’re not responsible for how the world responds to us or our message of hope. That’s on them. We can live confident that, so long as we’re faithfully presenting the truth of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, we can trust our Savior to care for us.
Not only should we care for the poor and disenfranchised, we have confidence in knowing that we, too, can be the least of Jesus’s brothers and sisters. And, when we are, we’ll make him known to the nations.