“Because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
This is the universal path to moral development:
Remember the least of us.
Our power justifies no abuse of the weak or the voiceless.
Higher intelligence grants no divine right to oppress
but a divine responsibility to protect.
No life can be owned but our own!
To profit from the suffering or death of the “less intelligent” is immoral.
To shackle the existence of any being less powerful than you
Is to replace all hopes for life and happiness
with a future tailored for self destructive hypocrites
who dress in jeans and a t-shirt
so they can pass as normal.
The radical Jesus’ judgment of the nations in the gospel of Matthew 25:31–46 is such a refreshingly clear warning to the world that how we treat “the least of these” equates to how we should expect to be judged. In the passage, the Messiah is a shepherd who separates the people of the world into the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Confusingly “the least of these brothers of mine” is popularly restricted by most Christian theologians to only include Christian “brothers of mine.” This bewildering interpretation inserts Christians both as the subject of the whole passage and the makes matter of how we treat the least of the Christians central to the meaning of the parable, but if this entire parable is a call to focus our charity exclusively on Christians, then who are Christians represented by in this parable? This passage only includes the following cast of characters in the following order:
- Son of Man (shepherd, the King) [1st]
- all the holy angels [1st]
- all the nations [1st]
- shepherd [2nd, 1st symbolic]
- sheep (on his right hand, the righteous, the blessed of my Father) [2nd, 1st symbolic]
- goats (those on the left hand, the cursed) [2nd, 1st symbolic]
- the king [3rd]
- the blessed (those on his right hand) [3rd]
- my Father [1st]
- the righteous (those on his right hand, the blessed of my Father) [4th]
- Lord (the king) [4th]
- the king [5th]
- one of the least of these my brothers [5th, but first introduction in ‘Christian brothers’ interpretation]
Why then – if, according to the exclusive Christians-only interpretation, are we either righteous or cursed based on our actions towards the least of only the Christians and not “all the nations” – is there no prominence to Christians in particular as literal or symbolic characters in the parable? By the time the reference to “one of the least of these my brothers” is used, the key characters in the parable have been introduced directly, symbolically and indirectly.
It would be hypocritical for a teacher, who is using a story to outline the most important moral message there is, that forms the criteria for us to be either blessed and inherit the kingdom or be cursed into the eternal fire, to make it hard for us to understand that message.
If someone is drowning and you want to tell them how to save themselves, you don’t throw them a survival manual, you make it as easy and as obvious as possible for them to get to safety.
The popular scholarly Christian interpretation of this parable, takes an immediately intuitive message and makes it complicated. In doing so it undermines the work of some of the most morally inspiring people who have ever lived, in favor of a kind of Christian victim story that certainly did not apply until long after Jesus’ time.
Taken plainly, “the least of these” brothers and sisters of the son of man, are all sons and all daughters, not exclusively Christians, but as it says in every direct translation “all the nations.”
In the phrase “the least of these” the word “least” is the superlative from of mikroi (little ones) – the superlative of little is littlest, so read “littlest ones.”
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
As a final rebuttal to a Christians-only interpretation of this passage, it would absurd, but be less complicated than the exclusive minded approach, to interpret this as “The King” (who is not talking directly to his brother disciples in this context but as the Messiah who sits “on his glorious throne”) when referring “the least of these my brothers” is talking about the least of his “holy angels” who have come “with him”.
My point is that the Messiah, who is motivated by love, is going to present this life-and-death-of-the-soul message about “littlest ones” in a way that “littlest ones” can understand it. Therefore, unless the Messiah is only concerned about saving the souls of theological scholars, there is no justification for complicating this simple and powerful call to boiling down all moral judgement to the simple measure of how you treat “the least of these.”
As the inspiration to all altruists in its most intuitive and easy to grasp way, this message must be what it appears to be. The meaning, like that of a children’s story, must be broad and inclusive. What our souls depend on is not what we extract about this story, but how this message hits us in the heart, its meaning is beyond simple. We all know that righteousness does not hinge on complicated analyses.
If I am looking for the people who are of the highest moral character, what better measure of their goodness is there than to look at how they act towards those who are assigned the lowest rungs of the social totem pole?
This passage begins with “Before him all the people of the world will be gathered,” a straightforward reading is simply that “one of the least of these brothers of mine” includes the least of everyone and anyone, the lesser they are, the more how we treat them reflects on our moral character. It ads moral clarity to the subjective problem of The Golden Rule.
In this story, Jesus is to a shepherd as everyone in the world is to sheep and goats, so a simple reading is to look at who is literally “the least of these brothers of mine.” We are equal human sons and daughters to only our fellow human beings but “the least of these” points at those who are the most ‘other’, as sheep and goats are other to a shepherd; those who are related to us, but in the order of power and advantage are the most different, “the least of these” in the context of what a shepherd is to sheep and goats, is the Son of Man telling us in clear imagery that our chance to be “blessed” and “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” depends on how we treat hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned: people with disabilities; immigrants; minorities, not just our beloved pets but all animals, for who, in the context of sheep and goats is more clearly “the least” than an actual sheep?
To identify who “the least of these” are, let’s first figure out who they are not.
We can get a picture of who “the least of these” aren’t by looking at who we identify with as equals of us: on our team, in our family, our religion, our political party. If we reserve our love for those who are us or who could benefit us, then we are excluding “the least of these.” It is obvious to anyone who cares about being good that genuinely good people do not just look out for their own kind.
Are we courageously ethical, like Jesus, or are we afraid to oppose the crowd and so we cheer for the team of the beautiful predators just because they are successful and popular? Do we ever turn and defend the pray? Do our dreams include only our friends and family, do we identify with the ones that society objectifies? Do we feed the very ones who need our protection to the ones who need no protection? Do we help only those who look like us? Do we avoid anyone who does not belong? Do we take care of those whose lives are ignored, those who are excluded, used as objects, looked down on, and devalued? I have not doubt that I am with Jesus on this, who I really am is ultimately sealed by what I do for those who are belittled and have no voice. This parable is telling me, if I want to be good, then actions against those who may stand trial against me deserve less punishment than actions committed against those who cannot bear witness against me.
Isn’t it ironic though, that this group of individuals is so excluded and invisible that we deny who “the least of these” even are?
31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not [a]take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”