Who are ‘the least of these’? Scholars say they may not be the poor

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta, shown with an Indian child in 1977, worked to help sick and homeless victims in the cyclone-ravaged Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. She said her Missionaries of Charity nuns have "all the experience necessary to work in this disaster area because of previous efforts during floods." "In all these human tragedies, God is trying to teach us something. We are not able to understand Him," she said as she went about supervising the rescue operation. Religion News Service file photo

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, shown with an Indian child in 1977, worked to help sick and homeless victims in the cyclone-ravaged Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. She said her Missionaries of Charity nuns have "all the experience necessary to work in this disaster area because of previous efforts during floods." "In all these human tragedies, God is trying to teach us something. We are not able to understand Him," she said as she went about supervising the rescue operation. Religion News Service file photo

(RNS) When asked to describe the essence of the Christian message, Mother Teresa would often hold up a child’s hand and recite Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” She would then jiggle the child’s fingers one by one and repeat: “You. Did. It. To. Me.”

Mother Teresa saw Jesus in the face of every needy person she ministered to because she understood “the least of these” to refer generally to the poor.

She is just one example. 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.”

McKnight says that in the 21st century, “the least of these” might be the Egyptian Coptic Christians who were beheaded by ISIS radicals in Libya or Saeed Abedini, the Iranian-American pastor imprisoned by the Iranian government for hosting illegal Christian gatherings.

Craig Keener, professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of “The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary,” agrees with McKnight’s view and says the predominant Christian interpretation has been divided between two options: the poor or Christian missionaries.

McKnight and Keener are not alone. Craig Blomberg, a professor at Denver Seminary and expert on Jesus’ parables, says he believes this passage is speaking about Christians. Calvinist theologian D.A. Carson has argued similarly. Even Christianity Today published an article in March calling this “a more biblically accurate understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25.”

Finding consensus among such a wide swath of Christian scholars is impressive, but when Southern Baptist college professor Denny Burk argued this view in a blog post last week, it created uproar online.

Klyne Snodgrass, author of “Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus,” is a major scholar who says Mother Teresa and others have interpreted this passage appropriately. He says that Matthew’s Gospel is clearly referring to the poor because the context of the passage is about obedience, not mission. He says that opposing scholars are wrong about the phrase’s usage in the New Testament and wrong about how Christians have understood the phrase throughout history.

“When we read (‘the least’) in other places in the Gospels, it is not the exact same expression,” he says. “And for that matter, it is not a common enough word or set phrase that is used frequently enough to infer one meaning from its usage.”

He acknowledges that more than 50 percent of Christians have not understood this phrase to mean the poor in general, but he adds, “The real problem here is that people want to avoid accepting that judgment is according to works — a fact that is the consistent teaching of the Bible in both the Old Testament and New Testament.”

Though disagreement over this important Christian text abounds, scholars on all sides concur that the Bible provides ample support for caring for those in need.

“The principle that people who care about poverty want to promote — caring for the needy — is a good one and a biblical one,” says Keener. “But it just isn’t a principle that’s found in this passage.”


  • Jack

    There’s also a third view on what the parable means. In the Greek, “my brethren” may refer to literal brethren. That would mean the Jewish people, since Christ was (and is) a Jew.

    Also, the Greek word for “nations” in the parable is similar to the Hebrew word (goyim) for same. Thus it could mean “Gentiles” as opposed to “all of the nations.” When God in the Old Testament talks about humanity, it’s generally the Jews plus “the nations.”

    So when Jesus says He will one day judge “the nations” based on how they treated “My brethren,” it is more than possible that He means it will be a judgment of Gentiles on how they treated persecuted Jews.

    Many scholars in fact believe that this third view is the correct view of what the parable means.

    Of course, there could be more than one meaning…..a literal and immediate meaning referring to Jews, a deeper one referencing Christians, and a still-deeper one pertaining to the poor. All three could be correct.

  • Jack

    Eddy, it’s certainly true that the people being helped are needy, but that doesn’t mean the needy in this particular parable refers to the generic needy of the world. As I mentioned, the key phrases are “the nations” and “my brethren.” Again, in the Bible, when God speaks to the whole world, He says “Israel” and “the nations” not “the nations.” And again, “my brethren” in the Greek can mean blood brethren. Thus, there’s a strong possibility that Christ means He will judge the nations on how they treated the Jews.

    But again, it might not be all that He means. Sometimes there are deeper meanings as well.

  • Shawnie5

    I lean toward the view discussed in the article, and it’s true that this has been the majority interpretation throughout church history. It is really the only one that fits the context of Matthew 25, in which Jesus was giving His disciples instructions and warnings about what to expect as He sent them out into the world — the persecutions, troubles and martyrdom they would face, as well as the great opportunities they would have to witness to kings and rulers. I see Matthew 10 as the disciples’ commission to the towns of Israel, which uses similar language and in which Jesus promises to hold those towns accountable for how they treated HIs messengers, while Matthew 25 is their commission to the entire world, in which the nations are held accountable in the same way. (cont.)

  • Shawnie5

    Most ministers know all this, but they allow their congregations to continue in the popular but erroneous interpretation because, of course, it encourages generosity. Yet there are plenty of exhortations to generosity in the Gospels without us having to mangle Matthew 25 into some kind of works-based “social gospel” which is not what Jesus taught.

  • Shawnie5

    It’s worth pointing out that there is no instance in the Gospels where Jesus uses “brethren” to refer to anyone except His disciples and followers–He did not even speak of His own biological brothers this way.

  • JR

    The “least of these” does not refer exclusively to the poor, for that would infer that only the poor are worthy of help. Of course the poor and their children stand in our faces as images of our serious selfishness, but people without hope, ignorant sinners, the socially marginalized, and those discriminated against for their very existence can also be considered the “least of these’. Mother Theresa was not wrong.

  • JR

    He had no biological siblings.

  • Shawnie5

    That is the Catholic view. Not the Protestant view. IMO, it makes little difference either way.

  • Jack

    In terms of immediate intent, I would go with your interpretation — ie Christians — as more likely to be true than the one about the poor generally. But I don’t agree that interpreting it as referring to the poor necessarily entails an endorsement of the Social Gospel, although Social Gospel types will certainly view it that way. One can still assert salvation by grace alone through faith alone and say that Mt. 25:31-45 refers generically to the poor.

    I still think, though, that the Jewish people are the most likely candidate for the “my brethren” here, partly because the passage refers to a returning Christ, which, if you take both the Old Testament prophets and Revelation seriously, means at that point, He will be reigning from Jerusalem over the nations. The theme of God judging the nations after Armageddon or some final climactic battle or battles is a constant one in Scripture, and each time, it’s about mistreatment of Israel.

  • Jack

    Yes, you’re right in that He pointed outside of His own biological family at one point, saying “behold, my mother and my brothers” (if memory serves).

    However, in the Book of Acts, Peter in his sermons referred to Jews, including unbelieving Jews, as “my brothers,” as did Paul and I think Stephen.

    Again, (1) a judgment of “the nations” (2) at His second coming (3) which according to Rev. 19 occurs immediately after a worldwide attack on Israel which He thwarts by “striking down the nations” would seem to point to the unbelieving Gentile nations and peoples. Having by that time crushed the worldwide attack, as we see in Rev. 19, the next logical step would involve judgment not just for the attack on Israel preceding His return, but for how people treated Jews before that, particularly during the Tribulation but perhaps earlier as well.

  • Jack

    Mother Theresa got the heart of God right in that sense….and I guess that’s what matters most in the end. Technically, Mt. 25:31-45 evidently doesn’t mean what she thought it did in the sense of what Jesus was focused on there, but the heart of Jesus absolutely was directed to the poor in every sense of the word.

  • Jim Till

    You’ve been at this for two thousand years and still can’t manage to get things straight amongst yourselves. Follow the money.

  • Eric

    “Many scholars in fact believe that this third view is the correct view of what the parable means.”

    Name one.

  • Eric

    “According to a growing chorus of prominent Bible scholars….”

    Huh, and they’re all evangelical scholars, too (though one could point out that none of them, with the possible exception of Keener, are rightly called ‘prominent’ outside of evangelical circles). At least Jonathan was thorough enough to include one non-evangelical scholar, Snodgrass, who is actually read by other NT scholars.

  • shawnie5

    “At least Jonathan was thorough enough to include one non-evangelical scholar, Snodgrass, who is actually read by other NT scholars.”

    You’re saying that “other NT scholars” never read Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible? Or Jerome, or John Chrysostum, or Calvin?

  • Craig

    I believe these “scholars” spend too much time debating and (re-)interpreting scripture than “doing” it. Jesus gave examples in the parable, but in any case, it doesn’t take a theological doctorate to know who the “least of these” are. If you are of God and have The Holy Spirit, your heart will be moved to help those who need it, whether it’s an athiest caught outside in a storm, a Christian who is caught in sin, or a hungry child. Jesus is not exclusive. However, multiple times in scripture we are told to look out for the poor and downtrodden, to not just say “take care” and not act on it. The poor and sick that Mother Teresa looked after are examples of people who are very much “the least of these” as people too often forget about them, putting First World Problems first. To suggest that Christians who are socially minded are misguided or scripturally incorrect is something a Pharisee would suggest.

  • I always thought it referred to animals. I take care of stray animals.

  • Eric

    I doubt McKnight and the others have read Gill. Except Burk. He’s the kind of guy who would think Gill still matters. As for the other scholars I have in mind, yeah, no, they haven’t read Gill and wouldn’t unless they were studying how 18th century English Baptists interpreted the Bible. *yawn*

    As for Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Calvin, sure, a good many NT scholars have more than a passing familiarity with their works, even if they don’t “use” them in their own work. And I hate to tell you this, but all three of those guys saw a reference to the poor and needy in general in Matt 25. Especially Chrysostom.

  • james

    McKnight, Keener, Blomberg, Carson, and Burk do not represent “such a wide swath of Christian scholars”. They are all able scholars, and they are all in the evangelical tradition (i do not use that negatively); as a group they by no means cover a wide range of NT scholars.

  • Shawnie5

    Nobody is suggesting that socially-minded Christians are misguided, at all. Being socially-minded is one of the fruits of the Spirit that Christians have demonstrated throughout the ages. All that is being said is that this is not one of those passages which deals with generalized charity. This was a very specific promise Jesus was making to a very specific group, analogous to the promise He made them in Matthew 10.

  • Mitchell Hay

    OK, scholars- help out this mistaken pastor in his misunderstanding of the evangelic scholastic consensus and his mis-preaching of Matthew 25.
    How many jailed Christian missionaries even existed during Jesus’ earthly ministry? I’m assuming zero. So in Matthew 25 the earthly rabbi Yeshua is predicting the future and saying that at some point there will be Christian missionaries, and they will be jailed, and he will consider them the least of these his brothers and sisters? I’m finding this a bit of a stretch.
    Please edify me.

  • Shawnie5

    “He that receives one of these least, he says, receives Me. By how much the brother may be least, so much the more does Christ come to you through him. For he that receives the great, often does it from vainglory also; but he that receives the small, does it purely for Christ’s sake. It is in your power to entertain even the Father of Christ as your guest, and thou will not: for, I was a stranger, He says, and you took me in: and again, Unto one of the least of these the brethren that believe in Me, you have done it unto Me. Though it be not Paul, yet if it be a believer and a brother, although the least, Christ comes to you through him. Open your house, take Him in. He that receives a prophet, He says, shall receive a prophet’s reward. Therefore too he that receives Christ, shall receive the reward of him who has Christ for his guest.” — Chrysostum, Homily 45 on Acts. Apost.

  • Shawnie5

    “Consider the poor and the needy. Give to everyone that asks of you, but especially unto them who are of the household of faith. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick. Every time that you hold out your hand, think of Christ. See to it that you do not, when the Lord your God asks alms of you, increase riches which are none of His.” –Jerome, Letter 54 to Furia.

    “So far as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren…Believers only are expressly recommended to our notice: not the He bids us altogether to despise others, , but because the more nearly a man approaches to God, the more highly esteemed by us; for though there is a common tie that binds all the children of Adam, there is a still
    more sacred union among the children of God. So then, as those, who belong to the household of faith ought to be preferred to strangers, Christ makes special mention of them.” — John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Vol. 3

  • Shawnie5

    Hate to break it to you, too, Eric, but yes, NT scholars ARE very much interested in how 18th century scholars, or scholars of any age, have viewed the NT. It’s part of the course of study involved in, you know, BECOMING a NT scholar in the first place. Particularly the early fathers, since part of the difficulty with passages like these is that we are so far removed from the cultural context in which they were written, when spreading the gospel could very well mean ostracism, poverty, betrayal to authorities, imprisonment and even death.

    But instead of merely dismissing the scholars mentioned with “oh-they’re-just-evangelicals-who-cares” (which actually refutes nothing) why not simply present a case for WHY you think they’re wrong, as Jack and I and even Eddy did?

  • Shawnie5

    Why is it a stretch? The Mount Olivet discourse, of which the passage in question is part, speaks very specifically of all these things in store for HIs brethren (missionary work, imprisonment, harassment, assaults, martyrdom). Why is it a stretch that He promises to hold the nations accountable for it all, as He held the towns of Israel accountable in Matthew 10?

  • Eric

    “Hate to break it to you, too, Eric, but yes, NT scholars ARE very much interested in how 18th century scholars, or scholars of any age, have viewed the NT. It’s part of the course of study involved in, you know, BECOMING a NT scholar in the first place.”

    I’m pretty familiar with the course of study involved in becoming a NT scholar, thanks. Funny how you refute a claim I never made, and by making a wildly exaggerated claim of your own. I never said NT scholars never read pre-modern exegetes; I simply said they typically are not central to the work most NT scholars do.

    And they are not so central to that work that they are “very much interested” in them that, say, Gill or even Calvin are typically part of the course of doctoral work in NT studies. I suspect we have different types of NT scholars in mind, which was part of my point about this article. And I don’t feel the need to defend the Mother Teresa-type of interpretation of the parable, since it has a long history.

  • Cranmer

    Actually, the overwhelming message of the major Prophets when pronouncing God’s judgement on Israel, is that they have abandoned justice and fairness and played favorites to the rich and powerful. The bible is clearly biased in favor of the poor, and this is known in the Catholic Church as the doctrine of the “Preferential Option for the Poor.” American Evangelicals have so perverted religion, like their Puritan forebears, that they would like to see the scriptures condone and justify a very specific form of political economy that emerged over 1500 years AFTER Jesus — that would be capitalism. Unfortunately, Jesus message is clear — he wants the rich to repent. If the same literalists want to read all the scriptures the same, literal, way then its very hard to get out of this interpretation.

  • Eric

    Part of that history is here: http://downloads.elca.org/html/jle/www.elca.org/what-we-believe/social-issues/patristic-christian-views-on-poverty-an6ec57e54.htm

    If I focused on Jonathan’s over-reliance on evangelical voices, that’s because I think that matters. A more representative selection of NT scholars would probably yield a less interesting story, namely that some see “brothers” in Matt 25 as any and all poor and some see “brothers” as Christian missionaries.

    The interpretive history of the text suggests that there is no single, knock-down argument to support one reading as right and the other as wrong, or even necessarily inferior. Consequently, interpretations of this text say as much, or more, about the interests and priorities of the interpreter than about the text itself. Hence the focus on mostly evangelical scholars might yield a serviceable RNS column, but it hardly demonstrates a sea-change in scholarship. Instead it tell us how evangelicals interpret the…

  • Jack

    Cranmer, you need to read the prophets from start to finish…..especially when they foretell the future.

    Certainly the prophets, speaking the Word of God, were very tough on Israel and her sins, because Israel was created to be a light to the nations, not an imitator of them, which she all too often became.

    However, in book after book, the prophets end on a good note regarding the future of Israel and the Jewish people. In the end, God forgives, God saves, God redeems, and God restores….and He specifically does it to Israel. It’s a happy ending, despite all the trials, tribulations, and judgments along the way.

    You really need to read the prophets carefully and thoroughly, with a minimal amount of doctrinal presuppositions. Read them in a plain and straightforward and natural way.

  • Jack

    Eric, virtually every dispensational premillennial scholar in the world believes the third way in some sense — ie that “the nations” means the Gentiles and thus the “brothers” means either all of Israel or at the very least the Jews like the 144,000 of Revelation who will be believers in Jesus at that time.

    That would presumably mean almost the entire faculty — past and present — of Dallas Theological Seminary and like-minded divinity schools. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder, certainly felt that way. I presume people like Walvoord and Pentecost have done as well.

    In centuries past, I presume the Jamieson, Faucet, Brown commentary, still revered as one of the best, at least in the evangelical world, takes the same view.

    And even in the ranks of non-dispensational premils are people who believe the same thing. I’m no dispensationalist and I believe it.

  • Jack

    Good point, Shawnie.

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  • ccws

    “According to a growing chorus of prominent Bible scholars, Jesus was speaking about persecuted Christians rather than the poor.”

    Say WHAT???? This makes no sense whatsoever; it sounds like yet one more Fundagelical attempt to filter Jesus through pietism and retain their focus and resources within the safe confines of the Me & Jesus Happy Club™.

    First of all, there weren’t any “Christians” per se or major “persecutions” (beyond intra-synagogue wrangling) at that early date, and second, to turn “the least of these” into your persecuted fellow Christians is to “care only for those who love you” (or are supposed to love you, at any rate). Even the publicans (and the Republicans) do that, so what’s the point?

    Whether Jesus ever actually said those words or not, he certainly acted according to them, and he denounced the pietists of his day in no uncertain terms – as did the prophets before him.

  • shawnie5

    You need to go back and read the entire Mt. Oliver discourse. The entire theme of it is the persecution that lay ahead for Jesus’s disciples and followers.

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