Understanding “the least of these my brothers” in Matthew 25:40

It has been a while since my last post.  I apologize for that.  Hopefully, now that I have finished moving I will be able to post a bit more regularly again.

One of the most-often misunderstood Bible passages comes from Matthew 25:40.  Here Jesus states “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Jesus’ words above come on the heels of telling his hearers that those who will inherit the kingdom are those who gave him food when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, visited him when he was sick, and went to him when he was in prison (Matthew 25:34-36).

Many interpret verse 40 to mean that if we feed the hungry, help the poor, visit the imprisoned, etc., we are fulfilling Christ’s commands and that is what leads to eternal life (i.e. the kingdom).  If that is your understanding, you are not alone, but you are likely wrong.

To properly understand the passage requires a look at how two phrases or ideas are used throughout Matthew.  First, we need to understand how “least of these” is used throughout the book.  In at least five other places Jesus refers to his disciples as “little ones”.  Check out Matthew 10:42, 18:4, 18:6, 18:10 and 18:14.  In each of these verses the ones referred to as “little ones” are the disciples.  It is likely that “the least of these” is another way of saying “little ones”.

Not convinced?  There is even stronger evidence that Jesus is referring to the disciples when we take into consideration the phrase “my brothers” from verse 40.  Jesus refers to his brothers in two other places – Matthew 12:50 and 28:10.  In each of these it is very clear that those Jesus refers to as brothers are his disciples.  Jesus never refers to anyone but his disciples as brothers, which seems appropriate given his words in Matthew 12:46-50.

So, what is this passage about?  Taking into consideration the entire book of Matthew, Jesus is saying that those who treat Jesus’ little brothers (his followers) well by showing them kindness do the same to him by extension.  Dave Turner summarizes this well in his commentary on Matthew by writing:

Jesus taught his disciples to love all people, even their enemies (5:43–47), but there must be a special love and concern for one’s fellow disciples. Itinerant preachers would especially need the type of ministry mentioned in 25:35–36 (10:40; 3 John 5–8), but it is doubtful that they alone are in view here. Jesus is identified with his disciples and they with him. They are persecuted due to their connection with him (5:11; 10:18, 22, 25; 23:34). Thus, it is quite likely that the privation of Jesus’ little brothers in 25:35–36 is due to their testimony for Jesus. When one shows mercy to a follower of Jesus, in a profound sense one is showing mercy to Jesus himself. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11, 330.)

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