I will make a confession to you. I don’t like the term “the least of these” when it is used to set apart a specific group of people. I often hear people, Christians mainly, use this term to refer to the poor, the broken, the orphan, the drug user, the prostitute, the abused child, the latinos, the haitians, the blacks, the lame, etc. And I honestly have a serious problem with people using this term to stereotype people and their issues. What’s worse is that sometimes this term, or often misquoted phrase of Jesus, is used to the exclusion of the wealthy, the americans, and oftentimes the very people who use the term to refer to that other group they want to point out.
I understand that many times when people used this phrase they do so in a very compassionate way. I understand that they are trying to help. I have no problem with having a “heart” for a specific group of people whether that be orphans, the poor, the elderly, people with cancer, etc. I have no problem with people trying to be sympathetic with other people, but we must be very careful. We must show compassion, but we must not elevate culture or background, or even ourselves, while putting others down. We must not exclude ourselves from the brokenness that exist in this world. We must not give the impression that the rich are not broken nor that they do not qualify as the “least of these” in Jesus’ book. Sin has ruined every thing and everyone. No one is exempt from its damage.
The story of the “least of these” is found in Matthew 25. Jesus is talking to his disciples about the end times, judgment day, and rewards for being faithful. He explains to his disciples what the kingdom of God is like using the parables of the virgins and the talents. Then in verse 31 he begins to talk about the last day, the day of judgement. He tells his disciples that in that day many will be falsely misled into thinking that they are serving God, but they are not. They have the wrong idea that they are kingdom minded, but they miss out in what that means. At the same time some will be busy about God’s business without even knowing it. They are serving. Yet they are never boasting. They are caring for others, yet they have no clue who they are really serving.
In comparing these two groups Jesus said that whatever a person does to the “least of these my brothers” that person did to him. And whatever a person fails to do the “least of these my brothers” they also fail to do to him. Who is Jesus talking about? Is he talking about latinos? Blacks? Orphans? Widows? Poor? Broken? People living in shacks? No. Jesus clearly uses the phrase “my brothers”. He is talking about believers. He is talking about those who belong to the family of God. But I know what you are thinking, “why is Jesus then talking about them being in prison?” The answer is very simple. Jesus knew, warned, and foretold, about believers all over the world being hated by the world, persecuted by the world, tossed in jail by the world, and even killed by the world for his namesake. If they did it to him then it should not surprise us that it will happen to us.
Jesus wasn’t speaking about any socio economic group. He wasn’t even referring to poor children. He wasn’t excluding the rich nor those with higher intellect. In fact Jesus never elevated one group of people over the other. We tend to do that. We have created an invisible, and often visible, caste system in our hearts and minds. We create lines of separations that divide the “us” from the “them”. We pridefully think ourselves better than others and look at those who seem different as “you poor little thing”. And we all need to stop doing this.
You see, I am a latina by birth and blood. I was born in a broken dysfunctional home. I was very poor. For Christmas I was fortunate if I opened a gift donated by the Salvation Army. But at the age of 17 I moved to the United States where I learned that my experience growing up was not everyone’s else experience. I learned to live with the “oh poor little thing, you grew up in a third world country” thing. At first I didn’t understand what that meant. Then I came to Christ and began to hear this “least of these” expression being used to refer to people that are growing up or grew up the way I did. At first it didn’t bother me until I began to notice the arrogance behind the term. Somehow the people using this term thought that it didn’t apply to them! They were not the “least of these”. Those other people over there were. And they needed to go out and “reach them” with the love of God…while thinking they themselves were better off than those being “reached”.
Can you hear the irony of that? The futility? Christ was talking about believers! Believers come in all different sizes and shapes and colors and socio economic backgrounds and with a million different issues. When a believer loves another believer in need he is loving Christ because Christ lives in that believer. When a believer chooses to reject another believer he is rejecting Christ because Christ lives in that believer. The Holy Spirit has sealed all believers. Christ is in every believer and whatever we do for one another believer is the same as if we were doing it to him. If we understand this then we understand that we are ALL “the least of these my brothers”.
The “least of these” are not the people living in huts in Haiti. Nor those from a bad neighborhood in Nicaragua. Nor those who are orphans in Romania. Nor the little girls involved in the sex trafficking industry. The “least of these” may and does include people from all those groups and even more, but it also includes the corporate executive earning a paycheck at a bank. And the woman who stays at home with her children. And the baseball player. And the blue collar worker in Kansas. The “least of these” includes people from all generations and all sorts of walks who have embraced the gospel of grace and have been forgiven by a Christ who loved them deeply. The “least of these” includes me. It puts me at an equal status as the orphan who received Christ and the computer analyst who embraced the Savior. The “least of these” are the brothers and sisters of Jesus who have been adopted by Almighty God and are now part of a great heavenly family.
May we embrace that. Because that is the truth. ~ Maria
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)