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Jesus' disciples are the oppressed and the oppressed are his Jesus' disciples
Commentators wonder if "the least of these" in Matthew 25 refers to the oppressed or Jesus' disciples. The answer is both.
Mathew 25:31-45 is an apocalyptic passage. It is about the end of the world. It’s about Judgment Day. Jesus uses judgmental language, separating the sheep and the goat, and his measure for judgment is in how we treated and served the least of these brothers and sisters, whom Jesus identifies with. Goats and sheep were separated because they flocked together but goats needed to be sheltered from the cold, but sheep could withstand the night. John Chrysostom, the church father, says Jesus separates them between sheep and goat “to denote the unprofitableness of the one, and the fruitfulness of the other, for sheep are greatly productive in fleece, milk, and lambs.”
The pious people wonder how they missed the opportunity to serve Jesus. Jesus tells them that how they served the least of these is how they served him. And for me, the power of the passage, lies in the fact that Jesus says he is in the least of these.
Often we wonder if the passage refers to the disciples of Jesus or the oppressed. My viewpoint is that the answer is both in that his disciples are the oppressed and the oppressed are his disciples because their social positions gives them proximity to the one who liberates them.
Jesus tells us he is among us, and specifically among the least of these. Plainly, Jesus is referring to his followers, and his disciples. In Jewish texts, the “nations” are judged by their treatment of Israel. Similarly, in this passage, they are being judged by their treatment of their disciples. Both the disciples of Jesus and Israel represent the self-effacement and humility of that we are all to model. Because of their faithfulness to Jesus, they’ve dropped everything to follow him.
The disciples of Jesus left their careers and families to follow Jesus. They voluntarily took on a simple life to radically commit to following Jesus. The disciples here are the least of these because of their commitment to follow Jesus. Too often, commentators stop the interpretation as care for the followers of Jesus, but something more is happening. Jesus is saying his followers are destitute, and the destitute are his followers.
Jesus asks us to divest our power and wealth to follow him. We remember the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18 who was asked to give away his wealth to follow Jesus. The goat, as it were, the ones who did not serve the least of these and thus did not serve Jesus were preoccupied with their worldly work. They missed the mark and focused on the wrong things. They miss Jesus who is in the oppressed in their midst.
In this apocalyptic text, the hypocrites that rejected and failed to see Jesus are the ones to be judged. In Matthew 23, He says that they tithe their spices but neglected the important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. They care more about their appearances, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
Today, we see Christians like this all the time – more concerned about things like critical race theory, than about police brutality. Concern about drag shows in Tennessee and not children sleeping on the floors of the Department of Children’s Services in the same state. It’s when Christians in Philadelphia are more concerned with gun rights than gun violence. It strains out a gnat, but swallows a camel.
Jesus’ entire ministry is focused on the downtrodden in fact. He came to free the captives and liberate the oppressed. Thus the downtrodden and the oppressed are his disciples. Emancipated people made up the nation of Israel. Like the prophets before him who freed the oppressed, Jesus comes as God of the Oppressed, to free them from oppression and death. His cross saves them from death but it also defeats systems of death that further their oppression.
The least of these that we are to serve also refers to the destitute among us; the disrespected and disinherited among us. Jesus is in those of us who have a vacancy for him, who must be filled. Jesus is with the downtrodden and the destitute. He knows their experience and has lived their experience on earth. And he calls us to ally with them, to serve them, but also to take on their posture – once again eschewing worldly power and strength.
Serving the least among us is serving God. As individual Christians, as churches, as conferences, denominations, and the Body of Christ, we will be judged by our response to this call. Jesus warns that those who don’t feed the hungry, clothe the poor, welcome the stranger, and visit the prisoner, have failed to serve God. He says, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:40 CEB).
So what to do? I think participating in food shelters and food pantries is basic. Visit people in prison. Clothe the poor and house the homeless. More than that, we must advocate for systems to change, which means considering local and regional political engagement. Jesus might ask if why we didn’t advocate for the least of these if we elect to be quietists. Finally, our churches must be safe places for the oppressed; so we need to consider racial minorities, queer folks, women, disabled folks, and so on. If they aren’t safe for the least of these – Jesus is plainly saying, they aren’t safe for him. Jesus is among the least among us.—the littlest of siblings. We must then pay attention specifically to their care in our bodies, because it in their care that we care for Jesus himself.