Preparing His disciples for what is yet to come, Jesus said: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Unsurprisingly, the disciples had many questions, and so do many of us, the readers. What does it all mean? Who are ‘the least of these’?
One of “the Least of These”
Tony Campolo often shared a story of a Jewish boy who suffered under the Nazis in World War II. He was living in a small Polish village when the local Jewry (the boy included) were rounded up by Nazi SS troops and sentenced to death.
The Jewish boy was forced to join his neighbors in digging a shallow ditch for their graves, then faced the firing squad with his parents. Sprayed with machine-gun fire, bodies fell into the ditch and the Nazis covered the crumpled bodies with dirt.
But none of the bullets hit the boy. When his parents fell into the ditch, he pretended to be dead and fell on top of them.
Several hours later, when darkness fell, he clawed his way out of the ditch. With blood and dirt caked to his little body, he made his way to the nearest house and begged for help. Recognizing him as one of the Jewish boys, he was turned away at every house. The locals were crippled by fear of the SS troops.
Then something inside this Jewish boy guided him to say very strange words. Knocking at the next door in the still of the night, he cried: “Don’t you recognize me? I am the Jesus you say you love.”
After a poignant pause, the woman who stood in the doorway swept him into her arms and kissed him. From that day on, the members of that family loved and cared for the boy as though he was one of their own.
“Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you”
“I am the Jesus you say you love.” Those words were more correct than you might imagine.
Let’s turn to Matthew 25:31-45 to understand the context of the earlier verse. This is Jesus’ answer to the disciples asking, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3).
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand,
‘Come, you blessed of 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 took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Whatever you do to the least of these” Verse
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting 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 take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
Then they also will answer Him, 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, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch 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 everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-45)
Who are the Least of These?
Readers often take the key verse of Matthew 25 out of context. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40) – whatever we did to whom?
Well-meaning people have used this one verse to refer to any act of mercy toward the needy.
A group of vegetarians used one strange application of this verse, to justify their aversion to eating meat. They claim that “the least of these” are animals, which are the least of God’s creation.
Biblical commentators offer various interpretations concerning the identity of these “brothers and sisters”, as some translations put it. One scholar did a wide survey of the various Bible commentaries and found the following interpretations:
- Anyone, particularly the needy among humankind,
- All Christians,
- Missionaries and evangelists,
- Messianic Jews.
It is rare indeed to find interpretations that Jesus’ brothers and sisters in this verse are in fact Jews as a whole – Jesus’ blood relatives.
Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
It is interesting to note that even years after Jesus was betrayed, His disciples still refer to Jewish unbelievers as their brethren. In Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he refers to his audience in Jerusalem with that name (Acts 2:29).
Later also Stephen, the Jews are about to stone, still regards his unbelieving Jewish compatriots as his brethren. We can read about it in Acts 6:15-7:2:
“And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. Then the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen…”
Even years later Paul himself spoke to Jewish unbelievers: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins…” (Acts 13:38).
We can see that it was common for believers in Jesus to still consider unbelieving Jews, even the hostile ones, as “brethren.”
And then, there is an interesting prophecy given to Moses concerning the Messiah. Peter quotes it in Acts 3:22:
“For Moses truly said to the fathers, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you.”
A Messiah from “the Least of These”
I believe the verse about “the least of these” specifically deals with the treatment of Jewish people as having direct bearing on one’s eternal destiny. We must not miss the gravity of this matter through careless hermeneutics.
Now let’s bring this matter closer to home. In the light of Jesus’ words, I believe it is time for us as Christians to reach out to the Jewish people with compassion.
We must love Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters, because He is inseparably tied to his chosen people.
God has made an eternal covenant with the Jewish people. He is so inseparably tied to them that the way we treat them is a direct reflection of the way we treat Him. It is clear from the very end of the verse:
“…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Blood Thicker than Water
This is what God said in Zechariah 2:8: “For thus says the Lord of hosts: “He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye.” Poke a Jewish person, and you have poked the Lord in the eye.
The saying goes, “blood flows thicker than water.” My blood brother and I didn’t get along very well as kids. But I remember, when a bully on the playground tried to mess with Rick, I told him he’d have to deal with me first.
In the above verse, Yeshua was in essence saying: “I take it personally how you treat my family. Treat them well or you’re going to have to deal with Me.”
Our commitment to God’s people will be severely tested in the last days. As we get closer to Jesus’ return, we will witness an increasing onslaught of anti-Semitism. Consequently, the sincerity of our commitment to God’s chosen people, the apple of His eye, will be severely tested.
Replacement and Omission
Tragically, the Church itself allowed anti-Semitism to seep into its ranks. Christians justified replacement theology with improper interpretation of the Scriptures.
Because the Church began seeing itself as the ‘New Israel’, the Jewish people (so, the ‘Old Israel’) had to be smeared and discredited. But Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:41-45 should serve as a serious warning to those who do not come to the defense of the Jews:
Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting 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… inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
Many in the church have learned to tolerate the Jewish people in the same way that they have learned to be politically correct. Yet they will not lift a finger to help the Jewish people in their time of crisis. It may not be a sin of commission, but it is certainly a sin of omission.
Why is Compassion for ‘the Least of These’ so Important?
Besides defending the Jewish people from anti-Semitism, we have increasing opportunities to help the needy among Jesus’ brethren. Many people stereotype the Jewish people as being rich. But there are large pockets of poverty, especially in Jerusalem.
I am personally grateful for the hundreds of Christian volunteers who are reaching out to the Jewish people in Israel today. Many in our surrounding involve themselves in providing food and drink, hospitality, clothing, looking after the sick and imprisoned.
We owe a great debt of gratitude for what Israel has already given us in the past. And she will yet give us more in the future when we participate with Israel in the blessings of the Kingdom.
Do it for Him and the Father’s Glory
Genuine deeds of love convey a powerful testimony. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Our acts of kindness will serve to provoke Israel to jealousy (Romans 11:11).
May it cause the Jewish people to desire the salvation we have found in Messiah Yeshua. All that we do on behalf of the Jewish people will be remembered and rewarded by the Lord. Not even a cup of cold water will be forgotten.
This article originally appeared on FIRM, August 29, 2022, and reposted with permission.