Written by Jesse Hove
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:40
We often use this passage in Scripture as a call to help those in our society who live in poverty. While this is a good, worthy, and biblical thing to do, I actually think that when Jesus is talking about His “brothers and sisters” in this passage, He is talking about the Church.
In Matthew 10, when Jesus sends his disciples out to go preach the Gospel, He tells them to live minimalist lives. He tells them that when they go out into the world, anyone who welcomes them welcomes Him. He says that anyone who “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,” (Matthew 10:40-42). Matthew 25 repeats this theme by referring to his “brothers and sisters” as “the least” and describing these acts of kindness as offered to Jesus himself.
The Greek word for “brothers and sisters” in this context is adelphos, which most often points toward a specific group, not a universal humanity.
Now, I want to be clear, I am not in any way saying we shouldn’t help those suffering and in poverty around us. There is plenty of Scripture that teaches us to care for and love those in need. James 1:27 tells us, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” My point is that Jesus seems to also have specific concern for how we treat the Church, His very body (1 John 3:17).
It is a good time to bring Matthew 25 into its proper context, because the Church today is seriously divided. Our current political climate, caused in part by social media, has Christians at each other’s throats. Instead of focusing on Christ, Satan has thwarted our unity by convincing us that either God’s justice or God’s Word is at stake, and we must go to war with each other to protect it. On one side, if we show care and love toward the LGBTQ community, we threaten the authority of Scripture; on the other side, Evangelicals are mocked for what is perceived to be an archaic and draconian belief system.
We see each other’s political systems first, and think of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ second. In the midst of our political confusion and hostile words, Jesus is trying to tell us that the answer is always Him. Even if we don’t know exactly how it all plays out, the only chance we have to remove the veil from our hearts is to focus on Christ.
We are made new in Christ, we should be moving past the same old game of blame and shame. Jesus comes to the defense of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 when the Pharisees attempt to stone her, but He also comes to the defense of the Mary who pours expensive perfume over His head as an act of devotion to him. Jesus’ own disciples become indignant at this act. They talk harshly about how the money could have been given to the poor. Jesus rebukes them, telling them that she has done a beautiful thing. He then gives us the rather uncomfortable words, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me,” (Matthew 26:11). Once again, Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t love and care for the poor; He spent a large portion of his earthly ministry caring for those in need. But Jesus knows that in the end, only He can wipe every tear from our eyes and end pain and death (Revelation 21:4). We follow Jesus’ example of loving others and serving “the least of these,” not to end the injustice of this world, but because He is the deeper mystery that will ultimately solve it.
At the last supper, John’s Gospel tells us the Devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:2). Jesus knew Judas was set on his dark path, yet He still invites him to the table and washes his feet. In that moment, Jesus is not concerned with what is just or unjust. Judas is a “brother” and He loves him. As we learn to love those beside us in the pews, may we reflect the final hope of Christ who died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).