In my last post, I talked about Ezekiel 16 and how my worldview was shaken when I came across God’s radical assessment of Israel’s wicked behavior in 16:49. Here, as we saw, God places Israel’s lack of concern for the poor at the pinnacle of his scathing critique of her sin. Recognizing the power of this verse, especially in light of its context, forced me to go back through the Scripture with a fine-toothed comb to see if the rest of the Bible speaks as passionately about God’s heart for the poor. In a future post, I’ll discuss what the OT as a whole says about the poor. For now, I want to look at a fairly controversial, yet very important, passage about Jesus’ heart for the poor: Matthew 25:31-46.
This passage is the longest and most thorough description of judgment day in all the gospels, and in it Jesus says that one’s posture toward the poor, needy, and marginalized is the criterion for who goes to hell and who goes to “eternal life” (25:41, 46). I know, I know, everyone wants to qualify this by saying “Ya, but justification is by faith, not by works, so Jesus is really just talking about those who believe in justification by faith and not by works…” and on and on and one. But for this post, let’s just stick to what the passage actually says. And it says that the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited in strangers, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and came to the ones in prison—these will inherit eternal life (25:35-36, 46). Others who didn’t do these things will go to hell. That’s what the passage says. In an effort to qualify Jesus’ dangerous theology, let’s not miss the point of the text: caring for the poor and needy is essential for eternal life. There’s no other way to read this passage with integrity.
(For what it’s worth, you may want to know that I’ve deliberately used a rather vague word like “essential” in the sentence above in order to avoid the debate about the specific role of works in salvation. Are works the evidence of genuine faith? The condition of our future inheritance? Or the basis of eternal life? My word essential could mean any one of these; I’m not seeking to enter this debate here.)
Now, an important question arises from this passage: who are the poor? Are they poor Christians or poor people in general—regardless of whether or not they are saved? Or more practically: should the church give funds to support the local homeless shelter, or should it focus on caring for the poor within its own congregation (or poor Christians around the globe) as a matter of priority? As you can see, the interpretation of this passage is huge.
And the answer lies in the meaning of Matthew 25:40 where Jesus describes the poor who have been helped as, “the least of these my brothers.” This phrase has been taken to describe: (1) poor people in general, (2) Jewish Christians, (3) Christian missionaries, or (4) poor Christians. As I’ve wrestled with this important issue, I believe that the phrase should be interpreted to mean poor Christians. This is based largely on the fact that the phrase “my brothers” in Matthew always refers to Jesus’ literal brothers or disciples and never refers to humans in general (see Matt 12:48-49; 23:8; 28:10; outside of Matthew, see John 20:17; Rom 8:29; Heb 2:11-12; Hagner, Matthew, 33B.744-745). Also, the phrase “least of these” is used in Matthew to speak of a Christian’s treatment of other Christians (See Matt. 18:6, 10, 14). So it seems that Jesus deliberately uses the language that He does here to speak of Christians helping impoverished (and persecuted) Christians, and not all poor people in general.
Now this doesn’t get us “off hook,” since a large portion—if not the majority—of poor people in the world are Christians! The genocide victims in Sudan, the 100 million believers in China, and the 40% of the population in Africa all confess Jesus and many live in grinding poverty.