This entry is part 21 of 44 in the series: Troublesome texts
- ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 6:1f – Who were ‘the sons of God’?
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”?
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east?’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5 – Son? Servant? Male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 25:40 – Who are ‘these brothers of mine’?
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’?
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – No room at the inn?
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’?
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’?
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – Saved through child-bearing?
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – the Saviour of all people?
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
Matthew 25:40 – “Just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.”
Who are ‘these brothers of mine’?
Summary: it is often assumed that ‘these brothers of mine’ are the the poor, and therefore that our final destiny depends on acts of kindness exercised towards the poor. In fact, Jesus only ever uses this expression to refer to his disciples (see esp. Mt 12:49), and thus the point of this teaching is that to receive kindly one of his disciples is to receive Christ himself.
Turning to consider in some details the various interpretations that have been offered:
1. Our Lord’s fellow-Jews?
Hagee espouses the Christian Zionist claim that a special debt of care is owed to the Jews. The present saying, for him, refers to ‘the Jewish people’, adding that ‘Gentiles were never called his brethren.’ The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus never called either Gentiles nor the Jewish people ‘my brothers’. See below.
2. Believing Jews?
The Scofield Reference Bible and the New Scofield Study Bible identify three classes within this parable: sheep (saved Gentiles), goats (unsaved Gentiles), and ‘brothers’ (the people of Israel). The latter publication states: ‘The test of this judgement is the treatment of individual Gentiles of those whom Christ calls “brothers of mine” living in the preceding tribulation period when Israel is fearfully persecuted (cp. Gen 12:3).’ So also Wiersbe: ‘It seems likely that they are the believing Jews from the Tribulation period. These are people who will hear the message of the 144,000 and trust Jesus Christ. Since these believing Jews will not receive the “mark of the beast” (Rev. 13:16–17), they will be unable to buy or sell. How, then, can they survive? Through the loving care of the Gentiles who have trusted Christ and who care for His brethren’. As Sizer (Zion’s Christian Soliders, 45), this interpretation is undermined by the fact that Jesus’ ‘brothers’ have already been defined as his disciples, Mt 10:42 (and see Blomberg’s discussion, above).
3. Everyone who is in need?
It has often been assumed that this passage bases salvation on acts of kindness done to all in need. This would be consistent with Jesus’ concern for the poor and needy generally, and there can be no doubt that Scripture does teach the importance of doing good to all who are in need, (Ex 22:22-27; Prov 19:17; 21:13; Mt 5:16,44-48; Mk 10:21; Lk 16:19-25; Rom 13:8-10; Jas 2:14-26).
Pinnock takes ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ to refer to ‘the poor and suffering’. According to this view, Jesus ‘wishes to say…that deeds of love done to needy people will be regarded at the last judgement as having been done to Christ, even though the Gentiles did not and could not have know it under the circumstances.’
Bruner offers the following reasons for adopting this interpretation:-
- ‘the finality and universality of the setting of the text (Last Judgment, all nations, vv. 31–32);
- the surprise of the righteous (vv. 37–39, in contrast to the intentional service of Christians or special people in 10:40–42);
- the four lists of the needy, which provide the most accessible definitions of “the least” (vv. 35–36, 37–39, 42–43, 44); and
- the context of four concluding warning stories in Jesus’ Sermon on the End of the World, the theme in each of which is the seriousness of the Judgment for Christians, too (24:45–25:46; it would be unlike Matthew to end a discourse with a story that failed to complete and heighten the teaching of all his preceding stories; cf. the endings of each of Jesus’ other sermons).’
4. Persecuted believers?
‘It is common to make this the key to the entire section and to read Jesus’ challenge as directed to all humanity (Jeremias, Hill, Bonnard, Davies and Allison, France) or to the disciples (Witherington) in terms of social action; that is, Jesus will judge everyone on the basis of helping the poor and the needy. Yet this is not the best understanding, for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (v. 40) must refer to believers, not to all humanity (see on v. 40 below), and Jesus is not teaching a works righteousness form of salvation here.’ (Osborne)
Carson (The Gagging of God, 301) insists that ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ ‘must refer to believers who are being opposed and persecuted for the gospel’s sake…One must remember that this Gospel has already established that Jesus’ true “brothers” are his disciples, Mt 12:48f; 28:10; cf Mt 23:8. Good deeds done to Jesus’ followers, even the least of them, are not only works of compassion and morality but reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself. Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself, cf. Mt 10:40-42; Mk 13:13; Jn 15:5,18,20; 17:10,23,26; Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14; 1 Cor 12:27; Heb 2:17. This interpretation can be shown to fit the parable sequence at the end of the Olivet Discourse, Mt 24-25; the alternative is irrelevant to the flow. Moreover, this interpretation takes into account the surprise expressed by both the sheep and the goats when Jesus makes his final pronouncements. If the alternative interpretation were correct, it is difficult to imagine why the sheep in particular would be surprised by the outcome.’
It is vital to notice the references to Jesus’ ‘brothers’. ‘It is increasingly accepted that the criterion of judgement is not kindness to the needy in general, but the response of the nations to disciples in need…The criterion of judgement becomes not mere philanthropy, but men’s response to the kingdom of heaven as it is presented to them in the person of Jesus’ “brothers.” It is, therefore, as in Mt 7:21-23, ultimately a question of their relationship to Jesus himself.’ (France) See also Mt 10:40-42, which may be regarded as teaching a similar message.
A similar view is taken by Keener (IVP NT Commentary): ‘In the context of Jesus’ teachings, especially in the context of Matthew (as opposed to Luke), this parable addresses not serving all the poor but receiving the gospel’s messengers. Elsewhere in Matthew, disciples are Jesus’ brothers (Mt 12:50; 28:10; compare also the least – Mt 5:19; 11:11; 18:3-6, 10-14). Likewise, one treats Jesus as one treats his representatives (Mt 10:40-42), who should be received with hospitality, food and drink (Mt 10:8-13, 42). Imprisonment could refer to detention until trial before magistrates (Mt 10:18-19), and sickness to physical conditions brought on by the hardship of the mission (compare Php 2:27-30; perhaps Gal 4:13-14; 2 Tim 4:20). Being poorly clothed appears in Pauline lists of sufferings, (Rom 8:35) including specifically apostolic sufferings. (1 Cor 4:11) The King thus judges the nations based on how they have responded to the gospel of the kingdom already preached to them before the time of his kingdom. (Mt 24:14; 28:19-20) The passage thus also implies that true messengers of the gospel will successfully evangelize the world only if they can also embrace poverty and suffering for Christ’s name (compare Matthey 1980).’
Again, Carson (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church) writes as follows:- ‘In the hands of some writers, what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is social concern: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, visiting people in prison – along with the dramatic addition of Jesus’ words, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40, 45). But that misses the point here. Certainly the Bible lays considerable stress elsewhere on compassion, justice, acts of mercy, kindness, and much else – as shown by Isaiah and Amos and the parable of the good Samaritan. But it has often been shown that in Matthew’s gospel the expression “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” can only refer to the least of his followers. In other words, the sheep and the goats are exposed for what they are by the way they treat the downtrodden of Jesus’ followers. The situation is exactly like that found in the book of Acts: when people persecute the people of Jesus Christ, they are persecuting Jesus Christ himself; prompting him the challenge a Saul on the Damascus Road, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)’
Blomberg (NAC, but also see Neither poverty nor riches, p125f) writes, ‘Who are these brothers? The majority view throughout church history has taken them to be some or all of Christ’s disciples since the word “least” (elachistōn) is the superlative form of the adjective “little [ones]” (mikroi), which without exception in Matthew refers to the disciples (Mt 10:42; 18:6, 10,14; cf. also Mt 5:19; 11:11), while “brothers” in this Gospel (and usually in the New Testament more generally) when not referring to literal, biological siblings, always means spiritual kin (Mt 5:22–24, 47; 7:3–5; 12:48–50; 18:15 (2×), 21, 35; 23:8; 28:10). There may be a theological sense in which all humans are brothers and God’s children, though not all are redeemed, but nothing of that appears here or, with this terminology, elsewhere in Matthew. The minority view throughout church history, which is probably a majority view today, especially in churches with a healthy social ethic, is that these “brothers” are any needy people in the world…Yet while there is ample teaching in many parts of Scripture on the need to help all the poor of the world (most notably in Amos, Micah, Luke, and James), it is highly unlikely that this is Jesus’ point here. Rather, his thought will closely parallel that of Mt 10:42. 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. That itinerant Christian missionaries regularly suffered in these ways and were in frequent need of such help is classically illustrated with the example of Paul (see esp. 2 Cor 11:23–27) and the teaching of the Didache (ca. a.d. 95).’
They are ‘Christ’s disciples (Mt 10:42; 12:48, 49; 18:14), not the poor and needy in general. The judgment of the nations depends on how they respond to Christians and to the gospel (Mt 10:40-42), not only because it is through the testimony of Christians that the Gentiles can hear and believe, (Rom 10:14) but also because Christ identifies with his people. Their suffering is his suffering, and compassion shown to them is compassion shown to him.’ (New Geneva)
Hagner: ‘The use of τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου, “my brothers,” makes it almost certain that the statement refers not to human beings in general but rather to brothers and sisters of the Christian community.’
‘This passage is often understood to teach that ultimate salvation is based on acts of kindness alone, so that there is nothing specifically Christian about the criteria of judgment. But that is to ignore the important description of the recipients of this kindness as the least of these brothers of mine (40; cf. v 45). This phrase suggests that it is not just anyone that the righteous have helped and the others have ignored: it is disciples in need. The phrase the least reminds us of the ‘little ones’ of Mt 10:42; 18:6,10,14, and we have seen above that this is a term for Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus says that in helping them you did it for me, this moving identification of Jesus with his ‘brothers’ recalls the principle of Mt 10:40-42, where to receive the disciples is to receive Jesus, and it is a cup of water given to ‘one of these little ones because he is my disciple’ which will be rewarded. In that case, the criterion of judgment is not mere philanthropy (good as that is), but people’s response to the kingdom of heaven as they have met it in the person of Jesus’ “brothers”.’ (NBC)
‘In some Jewish apocalyptic texts, the nations would be judged for how they treated Israel. In the Bible, God also judged people for how they treated the poor. But given the use of “brothers” or “sisters” (Mt 12:50; 28:10; the Greek term can include both genders) and perhaps “least” (Mt 5:19; 11:11; cf. Mt 18:4; 20:26; 23:11) elsewhere in Matthew, this passage probably refers to receiving messengers of Christ. Such missionaries needed shelter, food and help in imprisonment and other complications caused by persecution. Receiving them was like receiving Christ. The judgment of all nations thus had to be preceded by the proclamation of the kingdom among them (Mt 24:14).’ (NT Background Commentary)
This passage might also be regarded as ‘an extended dramatization’ of Mt 10:42′ (Green, cited by Hagner). In fact, that earlier passage provides strong confirmation of the interpretation taken in these notes (and also by many scholars, but perhaps not by most preachers), according to which the key point is that our Lord regards the way in which his disciples are treated in a context of mission, as if he had himself been thus treated.
‘This story is most likely about how the nations treat God’s emissaries, the church.’ (Osborne)
‘Instead of the nations being judged on how they had treated Israel, as some Jewish writings envisage, Jesus, consistently with his whole redefinition of God’s people around himself, declares that he will himself judge the world on how it has treated his renewed Israel.’ (Wright)
The historical evidence, as gathered by Sherman Gray’s 1989 book titled ‘The Least of My Brothers: Matthew 25: 31-46 : A History of Interpretation’, and summarised here by Denny Burk.[/su_box]