Any passage that ends with some people being gathered into heaven and other people being cast into hell deserves serious attention. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus divides all the people of the earth into two camps; one on his right and one on his left:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by 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 welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:34–40 ESV)
The key phrase for interpreting this text is found in verse 40. The King, who represents Jesus in this parable, says to the sheep: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40 ESV)
Given the stakes in this parable, it is hard to imagine anything more important than correctly identifying these people. Who are the least of these my brothers?
It may be helpful to begin by eliminating two obviously false options.
1. The “Brothers” of Jesus Cannot Be His Actual Brothers – James, Judas, Joseph and Simon
The Bible records their names in Matthew 13: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Matthew 13:55 ESV)
It is virtually impossible to imagine that Jesus meant for us to understand his “brothers” as being the 4 men listed above. The brothers are only mentioned by name in this one passage and they do not play a prominent role in Jesus’ ministry, and in fact they do not believe in him until after his resurrection. For Jesus to say in Matthew 25 (before his death on the cross) that our relationship to his unbelieving brothers somehow revealed our status as saved or unsaved people would be very odd. In fact it would immediately qualify as the weirdest teaching in the Bible.
The clincher in this argument for me is that in John 20:17 when Jesus tells Mary: “go to my brothers,” she immediately goes “to the disciples” in verse 18.
This is why, to the best of my knowledge, no serious scholar has ever identified “the least of these my brothers” with the biological brothers of Jesus.
2. The “Brothers” of Jesus Cannot Refer to the Jewish People as a Whole
Against this interpretation would be the fact that Jesus never referred to the Jewish people as his brothers in any other passage. In fact, in John’s Gospel the opponents of Jesus were consistently referred to as “the Jews” even though Jesus was himself a Jew. The picture of the New Testament is that the Jews as a whole rejected Jesus, while a remnant from within the Jews put their faith in him and became the core of the new community.
Also against this identification is the fact that the New Testament Apostles were adamant that being Jewish gave a person no privilege within the Kingdom of God. Consider the verses below:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Galatians 3:7 ESV)
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26–29 ESV)
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6 ESV)
If Jesus taught that our attitude towards the Jews revealed whether we are saved or not saved, this was clearly not communicated to the Apostles. The Apostles said that being Jewish counted for nothing with respect to being saved—all that mattered was faith working through love.
This has never been an orthodox interpretation.
That leaves 2 potential options. It is just barely possible that Jesus intended for us to understand the phrase “my brothers” as referring to the poor in general. I say that it is “just possible” in a spirit of charity towards the very many Evangelicals who are certain that it is so, while at the same time being constrained to point out that this has never before been the majority interpretation. Calvin commented on the text saying:
Believers only are expressly recommended to our notice; not that he bids us altogether despise others, but because the more nearly a man approaches to God, he ought to be the more highly esteemed by us; for though there is a common tie that binds all the children of Adam, there is a still more sacred union among the children of God. So then, as those, who belong to the household of faith ought to be preferred to strangers, Christ makes special mention of them.1
Matthew Henry likewise referred to “my brethren” as “the godly poor” – meaning poor Christians. This is how the phrase has been historically understood and the reason for that is that it accords with the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel. A few chapters earlier Jesus had already defined his use of the term:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward 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 12:46–50 ESV)
The believing community is the new family of Jesus Christ. They are his mother and his brothers. We get the same picture from a parallel saying in Matthew 10: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42 ESV)
It seems remarkably obvious that Matthew would expect his readers in chapter 25 to remember the definition of “my brothers” provided in chapter 12 and to remember the promise made about cups of cold water given in chapter 10. We do not need to import novel definitions and interpretations when we have all of these pieces within the immediate context. It seems quite clear that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 25 is that Christians show themselves to be Christians by their love for one another – particularly their love for the poor and vulnerable believers in their midst.
That does sound an awful lot like the kinds of things that were said elsewhere in the New Testament by Jesus and the other Apostles:
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35 ESV)
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17. ESV)
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20–21 ESV)
This is why the majority of scholars past and present have understood Jesus to be saying in Matthew 25:40 that real Christians are revealed as such by their benevolent care for fellow Christians in need. They are known as Christ’s disciples by their love for one another. Therefore this text is not a call to social justice, or deeds of mercy, or random acts of kindness among the poor of the world. It is a call to stand with Christian brothers and sisters in need. It is a call to help the single Christian mother buy glasses for her 14 year old son. It is a call to visit the older Christian widow in the nursing home. It is a call to pay the mortgage for a brother who has lost his job. It is a call to identify with poor and persecuted Christians in the North Korea and the Middle East. It is a call to be the church.
Many younger evangelicals have been using this text, or rather the phrase “the least of these”, to promote a cause that it does not naturally support, but that is not to say that their cause is a bad one. The Bible does encourage us to care for the poor stranger in need. Read the story of the Good Samaritan.
But Matthew 25 is not about that. It is about something even more primary.
Galatians 6 does a great job of showing both of these concerns in their proper order and priority:
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:9–10 ESV)
Let us do good to everyone—and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
That seems like a reasonable guide to action.
Let’s leave it as it reads.
Let’s love deepest inside the church and let’s overflow in loving care towards our neighbor.
This is the Word of the Lord—thanks be to God.
N.B. Be sure to watch for the next cycle of Into The Word! On July 19 we will begin releasing one episode a day taking you through the entire Gospel of Mark. This series would work well as a shared journey with an inquiring friend. You can check out past episodes of Into The Word by clicking here. For daily encouragement in your Bible readings see here.
1 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Complete), trans. John King, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), n.p.