Forming Faith Blog

Who Are the Least? (Matthew 25)

The focus of this passage is on the treatment of “the least of these.” But who are they, and what if they’re not exactly who we want them to be?

a cardboard with the word help written

We are reaching the end of the Lenten season, with only this 5th Sunday of Lent and Palm Sunday left. During these five Sundays of Lent, Jesus has been teaching us about the kingdom of heaven and God’s expectations through parables: The Unforgiving Servant, Laborers in the Vineyard, The Wedding Banquet, and the Bridesmaids and Talents. Now we come to Matthew 25:31-46, often called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (though whether it can be fully labeled a parable is a question for another time).

Sheep and Goats

It is easy to focus on the righteous sheep and the wicked goats, as that imagery catches our attention. Many faith formation activities (including in our faith formation products) take off with this imagery with sheep-and-goats-related crafts and games. But I think it’s important that Jesus is using the well-known (at that time) analogy of separating two groups of livestock. The point here is not whether sheep are righteous and goats are wicked, it’s that the king in this story separates out two groups of people who are intermixed. The separation is the point, not the species.

Right and Left

Now that this is out of the way, let’s focus on the rest of the passage. The king separated people out to his right and left. These sides are significant. In ancient times, the right side is considered blessed and the left side is cursed. While the New Testament was written in Greek, it’s easiest for us English speakers to see this difference in Latin: the word for “right (side)” is dexter, but the word for “left (side)” is sinister. See my point?

The Least of These

So, it’s not a surprise that the blessed are on the right side and the cursed are on the left. But what is the difference between the two groups? Their actions toward “the least of these.” Who are these least? This is where we can run into a problem of what the Bible literally says and how we often interpret and apply it.

My Brothers (and Sisters)

The full phrase that Jesus uses to describe the recipients of loving service in the NRSV is “the least of these who are members of my family,” though the Greek more literally says “my brothers (and sisters, the word can include all genders).” We usually assume that the king is the Son of Man who is Jesus. But who are Jesus’ siblings? Clearly not Jesus’ biological siblings; that wouldn’t make sense.

Disciples, Apostles, Missionaries

In fact, earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus identifies his “true” family:

And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:49-50

So, seen in this light, the “least of these” are Jesus’ disciples, those who follow God’s will. Jesus’ statements in today’s passages even echo what he says around the time he sends out the Twelve in mission:

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:40-42

This fits also with the righteous visiting the least in prison. Some of the most famous stories of imprisonment in the Bible come from the Book of Acts, when the apostles (including Paul) wind up in prison a lot for their missionary work.

Serve Only Christians?

However, seeing “the least of these” as disciples/missionaries/Jesus’ followers goes against how we usually interpret this passage. We usually talk about the righteous serving anyone who has been marginalized: anyone who is hungry, thirsty, stranger/foreigner, sick, naked, or imprisoned. The idea that serving Jesus is limited to serving the Christian Church is a troublesome thought.

Simplistic Teaching

This is something to wrestle with. But as you can see where we fall on this from our lesson Point:

When we serve others, we serve Jesus himself.

I think that, even if Jesus is specifically talking here about his disciples, it is very defensible from Scripture as a whole that God calls us to serve those in need, no matter their religious beliefs.

This is an example of what I was reflecting on two weeks ago with the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Sometimes Bible passages are difficult to understand and/or difficult to accept. In those cases, I do think that it’s acceptable to take a simplistic interpretation when we teach these passages to or around children, as long as the message we send is defensible by the spirit of the passage and the clear intent of the rest of Scripture. And for older youth and adults, it can be helpful to dive deeper into the difficult elements of the passage.

May you have a blessed and holy Lenten season.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 11 to May 28), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download a free activity “A Servant’s Heart” from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) (Year 1, 2022-2023 and Year 2, 2023-2024) curriculum. This activity can be used intergenerationally or with most age groups individually.

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