The “least of these my brothers” (“adelphoi” in Greek) historically has been a controversial phrase in Matthew 25:40.
Some have argued (the particularist interpretation) that because Jesus often referred to his disciples as “brothers,” he must be referring here in verse 40 to his suffering disciples with this phrase.
Jesus intends to say, therefore, that those in the world who respond to the needs of his sent disciples, the suffering missionaries of the church, shall be found righteous (inheritors of the kingdom).
On the other hand, more recently (at least since JÃ¼rgen Moltmann), there are those interpreters (the non-restrictive interpretation) who see the phrase “least of these my brothers” referring to the poor wherever they may be found.
In this interpretation, Jesus intends to say that those of his disciples who tend to the poor are the righteous ones.
This interpretation is defended based on the argument that Jesus wasn’t consoling threatened Christians with this parable. Rather, he was motivating “faithful discipleship marked by mercy and love.”
Furthermore, his use of the word “least of these” is so different in Matthew 25 from other places where he refers to his disciples as “brothers,” that something else must be going on here.
“The least of these my brothers,” therefore, must refer to the poor wherever they may be found, and Jesus is encouraging his disciples to recognize the kingdom where they become present to them in these ways.
New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass discusses this further in his book, “Stories With Intent.”
What the parable of the rich man and Lazarus helps us see, however, is another option for interpreting the significance of the use of “brothers” here in verse 40.
Jesus is emphasizing the relationship of kinship God is calling us into with the poor.
“Brothers” is about the family relationship, this space of “withness” with the poor we enter into whereby we become friends.
Our relationship with the poor is not to be organized as a program “at our local church.” Instead, out of everyday life, we are to come alongside, be present to the poor.
In this relational space, something truly amazing happens. Jesus becomes specially present (Matthew 25:40 “When you did these things to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” I was there).
Antagonisms become unwound. Resources are shared back and forth. Healing takes place. Relationships are restored. And a new world is born.
This is the discipline of “being with the least of these” that is to characterize our everyday life as Christians, as Christ’s church.
There will be times, of course, when the church offers strangers gifts of mercy to contribute to the preservation of souls.
Church programs to alleviate pain and suffering and to preserve the person through suffering are important and should not be abolished.
But the church must not be deluded into thinking these programs will redeem the world.
If the church places its hopes and efforts entirely in these programs, it will be exhausted from unfulfilled expectations and the eventual dependency this kind of work cultivates over long periods of time.
I propose the local church cultivate the practice of being “with” the least of these as part of everyday life as a more central practice to its life with the poor.
The church down through history has been at its best and made its biggest impact when it has practiced being with the poor (whoever they are in our context) and resisted turning the poor into a program.
To the extent that programs create relational distance between the haves and have-nots, they work against the kingdom.
Practicing “being with the least of these” disciplines us into the relational space of faithful presence with the hurting.
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on his website, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here. The article is an excerpt from David’s forthcoming book, “Faithful Presence,” scheduled for release in 2016.