Tag Archives: the least of these

Who Are “The Least of These”?

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There is a terrifying passage for Christians found in the 25th chapter of the book of Matthew where he recalls the words of his teacher, Jesus.  In it Jesus describes a time at the end of the world as we know it where “the King” of all creation judges the people, distinguishing those who go into eternal life and those into eternal death.  The test of destination and identity (sheep or goats respectively) is by how each person, throughout the course of their life, treated people that Jesus refers to as “the least of these.”  

 

Given the literal eternal ramifications of these interactions, who then are “the least of these”?   

According to the passage the least of these fit into at least 6 categories.  They are those who are:

  1. hungry (v. 35)
  2. thirsty (v.35)
  3. stranger (v. 35, greek word xenos – meaning foreigner)
  4. naked (v.36)
  5. sick (v.36)
  6. in prison (v.36)

All 6 of these categories describe people who are in great need.  

There are interpreters who qualify that “the least of these” is only referring to needy disciples of Jesus, not needy people in general because in verse 40 Jesus calls them “the least of these MY BROTHERS” (emphasis added).  Purporters of this view make this claim because Jesus is talking to his disciples in this passage and earlier in Matthew 12:46-49 Jesus calls his disciples his brothers.    

Here’s a number of reasons why I think “the least of these” can be interpreted more broadly than just disciples:

1. In the context of this passage

Jesus speaks of “all nations” and “people” (v.32) being present at the great judgement where this scene is described.  The condition of each person’s separation, one from the other, is how they treat “the least of these.”   If the least of these were only disciples of Jesus in need there are at least a couple issues. What would happen to those who do not live amongst or come in contact with disciples of Jesus (the modern mission movement exists because there are still populations of people for which this is true), let alone a disciple in need?  Wouldn’t it be likely that those that are not in contact with the disciples of Jesus would be those who are in need?

 

2. In the context of this gospel

If we are going to use Matthew 12 we must also look at the other uses of the word brothers (adelphos) in the book of Matthew.  When speaking to “the crowds and to his disciples” in Matthew 23:1, Jesus broadens the definition here that they should reckon each other all as brothers in 23:8 (disciples and non-disciples alike).  In the “sermon on the mount” no less, recorded earlier in the same book, Jesus teaches that an identifying mark of being “sons of [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45) are those that EXPAND the circle of whom we love and that to greet only our “brothers” (adelphoi) in the limited sense would make us no different than unbelievers (Matthew 5:46-47).  It seems strange, and a little suspect, to turn around and insist then that our definition of care for our “brothers” in Matthew 25 then ought not expand to include others in need…which Jesus is constantly challenging his disciples to do (Matthew 4:24, 5:3, 8:16, 9:12, 11:5, 14:14, 15:32, 19:21).  So it seems we may not truly be the “brothers” that we think we are if our love is so limited.

 

3. In the context of the rest of scripture

There are too many passages to name here that affirm God’s identification and concern for the poor, the needy, and the stranger that the weight against a contrary interpretation is revealing (just for starters: Exodus 23:6, Deuteronomy 10:18, Leviticus 23:22, Psalm 140:12, Proverbs 14:31, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:16, Acts 10:2-4, Galatians 2:10).

 

4. Even if the interpretation is correct that the least of these is limited to the disciples of Jesus, the irony is that the vast majority of the disciples in the world are more likely the poor, the needy, and the stranger anyway. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/may/26/the-world-is-getting-more-religious-because-the-poor-go-for-god

 

Like the lawyer, seeking to justify himself before Jesus in Luke Ch.10, I wonder if we as interpreters of the bible want to make the circle of “the least of these” smaller because we hope to limit our responsibility…we want a more comfortable religion?  But isn’t what we see in Jesus the opposite? He’s constantly flipping our expectations (responding to the lawyer’s question with the story of the good Samaritan) and breaking through our carefully crafted barriers.

 

Jesus, help us to love the least of these…to love you.  

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What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 7: It is a Reversal of Status

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Final Part 7 of 7 in a series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

7. It is a Reversal of Worldly Status

In all the talk about who is great, who we want to make great again, and who is the g.o.a.t. (aka greatest of all time), God’s view of who is great is completely the opposite from the world.  To God, whatever is highly valued by the world is detestable to Him (Luke 16:15) and whoever is considered least in this world are the ones who are great in His eyes (Luke 9:48).  God’s Kingdom is the complete reversal of the world’s kingdoms.    

How do we know that God does indeed have special favor and esteem that He bestows on the “least of these”?  It is through something that this world can never give…intimacy with Him.  Think, in the bible, to whom and when God personally appears and shares special intimacy with people: an old childless nomad in the desert, a shamed bi-cultural stranger in a strange land, a little boy born of a barren mother who was raised in a temple, a runt of the litter shepherd boy, and a virgin teen girl from a poor neighborhood, just to name some.  In my experience too, the people i have come to know who have had the most amazing supernatural revelations and experiences of intimacy with God are people that this world overlooks.  

Gus came from a family of 8 siblings, growing up in poverty in a rough neighborhood.  He is someone that society has overlooked.  He doesn’t have any advanced degrees.  He was notoriously violent and struggled with substance abuse.  That was until the Lord met him about 7 years ago.  Since then God has been transforming him and he has a relationship with God that i’m jealous of.  

About a year ago our church was doing a bible study in the book of Daniel. Daniel himself was not someone “great” before God stepped in; essentially he was a trafficked teenager who was enslaved and likely castrated in service of a foreign king in a foreign land.  One of the first and most miraculous ways God revealed Himself to this boy was to not only interpret this mad king’s dream but to reveal to Daniel what the king dreamed BEFORE the king even told him what the dream was.  This is an impossible task, for anyone could come up with an interpretation for a dream once they hear it, but who could possibly know what another person dreamed before they even heard it from the dreamer, except God alone?  And, come on, that’s a silly story in an ancient text that doesn’t happen today, right?  Wrong.

During the weeks of our bible study in the book of Daniel, God gave Gus a vision of a woman walking down the street and then hands came up out of the ground and started pulling her down.  

Gus asked God, “Who is this word for?”   

God replied “No. This is someone’s dream.”  That following Sunday, Gus saw a young adult that has been a part of our church for years.  She too was raised in this poor neighborhood and was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet for her 4 children.  God told Gus “It was her dream.”

Gus hesitantly approached this young lady and shared the vision that he had seen.     

She immediately asked “Have you been talking to so-and-so?  I just told her that I had that dream.”

Gus answered “No. God told me.”

This young lady’s jaw dropped and she went on to share how she was going through a lot of struggles and that those struggles were holding her down.  For those who may still be skeptical, God revealed yet another dream in detail to Gus and it turned out to be a different dream that this same young lady had!  

You see God lifts up “the least of these” in this world to show us true greatness, giving them insight that no human could possibly know…even to lift up others who also don’t have much in the world’s eyes, in order to demonstrate that HE sees them.  

In God’s Kingdom, HE makes the least of these the great ones among us.  

What does the Kingdom of God look like?

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if Jesus laid down his life to preach not just a gospel of the King but a “gospel of the Kingdom”, what then does this Kingdom look like?  and how is this Kingdom actually good news, and not just another man-made kingdom that will come and go?

at best, the “Kingdom of God” for me was a “christianese” notion that was a vague echo in my head from passages i’ve heard in the bible (and told myself that someday i’d get around to studying) and at worst it’s a phrase whose interpretation i just blindly accept from the people who use it.  the following is my attempt to study the phrase as it is found throughout scripture, trying not to rely on commentaries for the work i ought to first do myself (and please don’t just take my word for it either, but look into it for yourselves.  i realize we all bring our own perspective to the reading of scripture but i don’t want us to use that as an excuse not to allow it to speak to us.)   with these clues i hope to piece together what the bible reveals of what the Kingdom of God looks like, a Kingdom that Jesus says is already breaking through in our midst if we care to recognize it.   

 

so what does the Kingdom of God look like?  

1. it is a treasure worth giving up ALL else for

Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God is so valuable that, when it is found, it is worth giving up all THINGS (Matt 13:44-46) and even all PEOPLE (Luke 18:29-30) to have.  According to Luke 18:29 it is something that rewards not just in the life to come but “many times more” in this time as well.  Nothing that we could ever own nor any intimate human relationship we could ever have surpasses the Kingdom of God in worth.  

 

2. it is eternal

the Kingdom of God endures throughout all generations and lasts forever (Psalm 145:13).  daniel prophesied that it would end all other kingdoms (Daniel 2:44) and it is indestructible (Daniel 6:26).

 

3. it is accompanied by supernatural power

this was probably the most surprising discovery to me.  with 10 verses connecting the Kingdom of God to supernatural power, no other descriptor of the kingdom comes up more frequently.  there are some outrageous claims about the Kingdom of God, that can easily be dismissed as a “pie in the sky” worldview, if it were not substantiated by power.  i’m not talking about human power consisting of simply the means and authority to exert force (thanks, mark charles) but supernatural power which, by it’s very demonstration, substantiates its source as being “above” that which humans can claim.  

God’s kingdom is not just about talk but it comes with power (Mark 9:1, 1 Corinthians 4:20).  the gospel of the Kingdom is not just a proclamation but a demonstration of power, power over sickness (Matthew 4:23, Matthew 9:35, Luke 9:2, Luke 9:6, Luke 9:11, Luke 10:9) and power over darkness to drive out demons (Matthew 12:28, Luke 11:20).  any discussion of the kingdom that does not address supernatural power is just playing at the Kingdom of God.  

 

4. it is good

unlike most, if not all, other kingdoms, it is good.  not good in the sense that it makes everyone feel nice but good in the sense that it does right.  what good is good if it’s only good for those who oppress others?  rather the foundation of this Kingdom is built upon “righteousness and justice” (Psalm 89:14).  the Kingdom of God is not merely outward behaviors but a matter of springing from the deep internal reality of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17)

 

5. it starts small but becomes great

like a tiny seed of the mustard plant, Jesus says the Kingdom of God starts small (Matthew 13:31-33, Mark 4:26-32, Luke 13:18-21).  so small it may be easy to miss.  so small it seems insignificant.  so small it feels like it’ll take too long to wait for it to become more.  but grow it will. and it will grow so greatly that it could provide comfort to so many others than just oneself.  so great that the universe itself will show visible signs of its fulfillment (Luke 21:25-31).  the Kingdom of God is great but it won’t always look that way at first; it requires patience and is a process.  those who skip over this may find themselves chasing something else entirely.  

 

 

6. it is a mystery revealed  

the Kingdom of God is a mystery to most but to some it is a gift revealed (Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10).  In a way, the Kingdom of God is hidden in plain sight in that Jesus gave all who would hear access to it.  but he told of the Kingdom through “parables”, stories that could be taken at face value but that pointed to a deeper reality for those who would care to look further.  why not reveal the Kingdom of God more plainly?  maybe such a form would serve to weed out those who were not truly hungry for spiritual things.  there is hope in that even the disciples of Jesus didn’t get what the parables were always about, but they did stick around with Jesus to find out.  the Kingdom of God is going to grow.  we can do our part but at the end of the day, like a growing seed, it will grow whether we fully know how God does it or not (Mark 4:26-29).  

 

7. it is a reversal of worldly status 

probably the most distinctive aspect of the Kingdom of God, that sets it apart from all other kingdoms, is the radical (and often unsettling) worldview of privileging those at “the bottom” of the earth’s social status.  this aspect of our King’s heart is not some side-note in His scripture.  next to point #3 above, these associations of the Kingdom of God with “the least of these” are the most reiterated.  

in the economy of the Kingdom of God “the least” are the “greatest” (Luke 7:28, Luke 9:46-49).  the Kingdom of God belongs to children (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16) and the poor (Luke 6:20, James 2:5) whom society tries to push aside.  the Kingdom of God will go first to the “sinners” we don’t expect to be a part of it (Matthew 21:31).  

can you imagine such a Kingdom?  where the people that the world tells us are “losers” are the ones who are held in most high esteem?  where children and the poor are our models of faith and how to relate with God?  where those we look down upon are actually the ones we will be looking up to?  these very notions go against how the kingdoms of our world operate (and it’s not a very good track record i might add).  maybe this gives us a sign that it’s origin is not of this world.   maybe this is why we have so much difficulty in seeing the Kingdom of God.  we’re not even looking in the right places.  our lenses are totally broken.  then maybe, after all, this is the good news that we’ve been looking for all our lives.  

 

in conclusion, what does the Kingdom of God look like and what makes it so good?

the Kingdom of God is the most valuable, eternal, powerful, good, growing, mysterious, and upside-down thing you can give yourself to.  

she reminded me of Jesus

q.s.  when i first met her last week she was working diligently in mr. r.b.’s class afterschool.  she is a special day class student.  when you see her having to walk with arm crutches you know.

this week on tues. students were to write an obstacle they’ve been through and how they did or did not get through it.  i looked at q’s paper.  she wrote that she has not gotten through it because she is going through it now…people who make fun of her.  i told her what i try to remember when i am going through a hard time: God is with me.  i think i saw her eye tear up.

this morning she came in early.  she is almost always by her self as she makes her way across campus, much more slowly then everyone else.  she let me know how it’s been hard: the ridicule, that she is only one with crutches on campus, that everyone knows her as “that” girl, that she thought she was going to graduate last year and was on her way to graduation when a staff member told her that she still needed to do two more years of high school.  no one told her this before.  she was crushed and humiliated.  but here she is back at school.  she says people can encourage her but they don’t always understand.  what gets her through, she said was her faith…that she feels better when she remembers she is actually not alone because God is with her.

i am humbled by q’s example.  she reminds me of Jesus.  she walks forward by herself through ridicule by people that don’t understand her.  just like Jesus did for us.

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q walks alone through ridicule but presses on…because she knows she is not alone, that she is being made strong.  Jesus walked alone to calvary carrying a cross as people ridiculed him…He would be completely abandoned…but He was strong for us.