Who are Jesus’ brothers/sisters in this statement?
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 NIV)
So, was Jesus thinking only of Christians as his brothers and sisters? Or did he have the whole human family in view? It matters, because the church needs to be clear about its mission. The answer you give reveals how you understand the scope of Jesus’ kingship.
Some background to this debate. Dale Allison (Matthew, ICC, 428-429) identifies the three major views and their supporters:
Who are ‘the least of these my brethren’? …
1. Everyone in need, whether Christian or not:
Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Alford, McNeile, Schlatter, T. Preiss, Cranfield, G. Gross, Jeremias, Hill, E. Schweizer, Agbanou, Meier, Schnackenburg, Gnilka, Patte, D. Wenham.
2. All Christians/disciples:
Origen, Basil the Great, Augustine, Bede, Thomas Aquinas, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, B. Weiss, J. Friedrich, Ingelaere, S. W. Gray, G. N. Stanton, Court, France, Garland.
3. Christian missionaries/leaders:
Zahn, Gundry, Cope, Lambrecht, Hare, Blomberg, Luz.
The third option is more recent and less evident. These commentators start with the assumption that the king ought to judge people on the basis of how they respond to the gospel. What matters is whether people accept or reject Jesus, so the least of these my brothers must mean the messengers who carry the gospel. In Blomberg’s words, “The sheep are people whose works demonstrate that they have responded properly to Christ’s messengers and therefore to his message, however humble the situation or actions of those involved” (Matthew, NAC, 378). But this sounds like special pleading, a conclusion you reach only from the assumptions you bring to the text, not from anything in the story.
The other two positions have significant supporters through church history and today. Again, it’s interesting to see how the presuppositions we bring to the text shape the way we read. Those who were strongly focused on the church have been more attracted to #2, while those with a wider outlook have tended to prefer #1.
So how do we decide?
Clues in the story
Jesus introduced this story by saying it’s about all people. The son of man has kingship over all the nations of the earth, regardless of whether they recognize his throne or not (25:30-31). The language drawn from Daniel 7 does not allow any lesser view of his kingship. And if that is the scope of the king’s authority, then how we treat any human who belongs under his authority is how we are treating our king. It’s too small a view of Jesus’ kingship to restrict the story to those we judge to be Christians.
And that’s a major point of the story. The king denies us any place in deciding who are his people and who are not. Both the sheep and the goats are confused about how he has judged them and ask, “Why have you placed me in this group?” Any interpretation that requires us to say, “Well, it’s only about how we treat Christ’s people” founders on the assumption that we know which ones are Christ’s people. We don’t.
In practice then, since only the Shepherd is able to judge between sheep and goats, we cannot treat the king well unless we treat all his flock well, whether sheep or goats. The authority the son of man received from his Father makes him Lord of all, whether they acknowledge him or not.
The worst possible interpretation of the least of these my brothers would be to pervert it so that it refers only to the special status of gospel messengers. The whole point of the story is that how one treats the greatest person in the kingdom (the king) is demonstrated by how we treat the neediest, for that’s there the king’s heart is.
It’s time to lift the church’s vision beyond itself to the world where Christ is king by heaven’s decree. That kingdom vision gives the church its mission in his world.
Open Matthew 25:40.
What others are saying
Ronnie Prevost and Kevin Dellaria, “The Bible and the ‘Other’” in Review and Expositor 94:3 (1997), 449–450:
The point of Matthew 25 is clear: not only does Jesus identify with the strangers among us, but He also expects His followers to treat strangers as they would treat Him. Indeed, in v. 40 Jesus refers to the “other” as His adelphon or “brother.” One of the most significant messages of the New Testament is that a God who was “other” chose to clothe Himself in that which was familiar to us. …
As Frank Stagg once wrote: “Place a mouse before a cat and one sees what a cat is; place a person in need before a true child of God and one sees what a child of God is.”
James England, “Matthew 25:31-46” in Review and Expositor 85:2 (1988), 319:
In this context, the parable of judgment is preceded by the parables of the ten maidens and the talents. Those stories speak of readiness for surprise appearances and accountability for what is entrusted to us. Then in our story God appears in judgment as expected but judges on an unexpected basis. Throughout the chapter God is unexpected. It is a challenge to all of us who look for God in all the wrong places. It calls us to see the transcendent dwelling in the common. The basic issue is where we find God. Certainly the parable teaches accountability, but it is accountability for our finding God in people and places that do not seem obvious.
It is Christ in his distressing disguise whom I love and serve.