“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (verses 37-40)
The teaching of Jesus in these verses is not primarily directed toward taking care of the poor. That’s how I’ve usually read it. But on closer examination, Jesus is talking about something else.
Not that he isn’t concerned with caring for the poor. Clearly, he is. Absolutely. Just take a look again at the Parable of the Good Samaritan to discover that the calling to love our neighbour extends to anyone we encounter in need – obviously the poor are included. Or listen to Jesus’ radical teaching about selling our possessions and giving to the poor (Luke 12:33) – clearly, he wants the poor cared for.
But in this particular passage, he’s got a different group in mind. He says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Whenever Jesus uses the term “brothers” in the Gospels, he’s not referring to humanity in general, but rather specifically to his own disciples. It’s the same group that Jesus has in mind when the speaks of “little ones,” which is a similar concept to that of being “least.” He speaks of not causing “one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” (Matthew 18:6), and then uses the same phrase two more times in that same chapter (verse 10 and 14), each time referring to those who follow him. He’s got in mind all of us who are his disciples.
And consider his words in Matthew 10:40-42 as he sends his disciples out on mission – “He who receives you receives me … And if anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” He sent his disciples out without food or extra clothing or shelter. They had the very needs that Jesus speaks about here in Matthew 25 – they were hungry, thirsty, needing shelter, and needing clothing.
So, when Jesus tells the righteous that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” he’s talking about how they treated his followers – in other words, their own brothers and sisters in Christ.
Once again, to be clear, we’re also supposed to care for the poor generally. But here, he’s focused on how we treat our fellow followers of Jesus.
This is not something Christians have done very well down through the ages. Too often, we have taken up positions in our own denominational camps, behind our own doctrinal distinctives, and treated those outside our own circle with wariness – indeed, often hostility and opposition – rather than with care and support and warmth. Too often we have engaged in battles rather than extending brotherly love and hospitality. We don’t have to agree with each other on everything, but we are certainly called to love.
And when we offer a cup of cold water to one of the least of these, Jesus gladly accepts it as a gift to himself.
How could we choose to miss any opportunity to bless our Lord?
Lord Jesus, give me eyes to see you in every Christian I meet, regardless of how different they are in style or thinking or behaviour. Remind me to extend love and acceptance and brotherly kindness. Give me joy in knowing that it is the Lord Christ I am serving. To your glory. Amen.
Reflect: Think of a sister or brother in Christ – in your own congregation or in another – with whom you struggle to extend love and hospitality. Pray the Lord’s blessing on them. Consider: How can I extend a “cup of cold water” to them this week?