When Jesus says in Matthew 25:40, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (CSB), who exactly is he talking about?

Some want to equate “the least of these” with all poor everywhere, and certainly God wants us to care for all the poor. But here in this parable, he is specifically talking about poor Christians. Whenever Jesus uses the language of “little ones” in Matthew, he’s always talking about his followers. The term “least of these” is simply the superlative form of “little ones,” which is one of Jesus’ favorite phrases for his disciples (see Matthew 10:42; 12:50; 18:6, 10, 14).

Take a minute to let that sink in: When you do kindness to one of Jesus’ brethren in need, Jesus considers it as if done to him, and when you ignore one of his followers, he takes that personally, too.

As a father, I get this feeling of solidarity. If you deliberately hurt one of my kids, we’re not going to be fast friends. On the other hand, if you really want to get on my good side, be nice to my kids.

I have a pastor friend, who, during his 10-year-old son’s baseball game, witnessed the pitcher for the other team throw the ball far too close to the plate. It hit him. The umpire didn’t do anything about it and tried to say that he was crowding the plate. My friend wanted to go ballistic on the umpire and defend his kid … but everybody there knew him as a pastor, and he didn’t want to make a scene.

As he was trying to figure out what to do, a woman from his church (who he recognized but didn’t know that well), jumped up, grabbed the fence, and started shaking it and screaming at the umpire with all the language appropriate for a moment like that. My friend said, “I didn’t know that woman, but right then and there I determined that I loved her. When you stand up for my kid, you stand up for me.”

That’s how God feels about others who are good to his little ones. Doing something for one of his children is like doing it for him.

“Then he will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels! For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you didn’t take me in; I was naked and you didn’t clothe me, sick and in prison and you didn’t take care of me.’

 

“Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”

 

(Matthew 25:41-46 CSB).

Who, then, are “the least of these” that the righteous will serve?

1. Persecuted believers around the world

We live mostly isolated from persecution in the U.S., but we cannot ignore the reality that 2017 was the worst year for persecution of Christians in history. Last year alone, 3,066 Christians were killed specifically because of their faith, nearly that many either abducted or raped for the same reason, and around 800 churches were attacked.

2. Poor believers around the world

Many believers in places around the world live on basic subsistence (500 million Christians live on less than $2 a day). This is why our church partners with Compassion International, which works with local churches around the world to provide education, medicine, food, job training, and spiritual development to the least of these.

3. Neglected believers in our own communities

This includes widows and orphans and men and women who are incarcerated. One of the ways we in the majority community can heed Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25 is by being committed to justice for anyone in our community who is not treated equally as under the law or doesn’t have access to the same opportunities and privileges that we do. We can’t call ourselves followers of Jesus and not use our resources to fight injustice, even when it doesn’t affect us. After all, as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

4. Future brethren of Jesus.

Not too long ago a study showed that the average American congregation spent no more than 7 percent of its annual budget on anything apart from ministry within its four walls. Of that 7 percent, slightly less than half (3 percent) ever left the U.S. Of that half, only one-third (1 percent) went to meeting people’s physical needs. In other words, roughly one penny on every dollar of American Christian giving to the local church directly implements Jesus’ vision in this parable across national boundaries.

If we believe the gospel, how can we not be actively and sacrificially engaged as the church in getting the gospel to the nations?