What Does Jesus Mean When He Says "Whatever You Do for the Least of These"?

Contributing Writer
What Does Jesus Mean When He Says "Whatever You Do for the Least of These"?

Jesus told an uncomfortable parable to His followers in Matthew 25. While most of us will gladly spend hours meditating on the Sermon on the Mount recorded earlier in Matthew, we struggle in Matthew 25 and its surrounding chapters. Many are understandably chilled at Jesus’ warning that “whatever you do for the least of these” has implications for our eternal future.

But who are “the least of these?”

It would seem obvious. However, there is debate about who Jesus was discussing in this passage.

When Does Jesus Say “Whatever You Do for the Least of These”?

Let’s begin our research several chapters earlier for context.

Matthew 21 records Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His temple cleansing. He explains that the religious leaders were challenging Jesus’ authority and then records Jesus’ cursing the fig tree, the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants, and (at the beginning of Matthew 22) the parable of the wedding feast.

Jesus was escalating His message to the Jewish people and their leaders. He’s giving them the opportunity to recognize that they’ve been given an opportunity to be included in the kingdom of God, but they could find themselves outside if they don’t receive the Son God sent.

Continuing in Matthew 22, we discover the Pharisees and Sadducees were looking for ways to trip Jesus up. They were plotting and scheming around him privately and publicly questioning Him to try to trap Him in His own words.

Then in Matthew 23, Jesus delivered a scathing condemnation of the religious leaders’ practices, calling them to repent of their hypocrisy. This chapter ends with his lament over Israel:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate.” (Matthew 23:37-38)

This is key to understanding the message Jesus delivers with repeated emphasis. He loves His people. His desire is for them to recognize Him as Messiah, but He can see that they will reject the Son of God just as they rejected the prophets.

Then Matthew 24 records Jesus’ description of the signs of the end of the age, the lesson of the fig tree, and the warning that we don’t know when He will come again.

As Matthew 25 opens, Jesus told two parables about preparation and then taught about the final judgment:

“‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25:31-33)

This is a hard passage to receive. None of us likes to imagine anyone being excluded from the kingdom of God, but that is the sorting out Jesus describes.

Jesus tells the sheep that they will now inherit the kingdom. They cared for Him when He was hungry and thirsty, a stranger and naked, sick and in prison. The surprised followers ask when they did these things for Him, and Jesus replies, “The King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus references his brothers in the parable—those in the family of God. This is easily overlooked but shouldn’t be.

Just as surprised are the goats, shocked that there were times when Jesus was in need, and they did not care for Him. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life’” (Matthew 25:45-46).

This parable is shocking and hard to hear from Jesus.

Man kneeling in front of the cross on Golgatha

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/GordonImages

What Parables Surround “Whatever You Do for the Least of These”?

As with any hard scripture, it’s wise to look at the parable’s context. As mentioned earlier, Jesus escalated His message to the Jewish people and their leaders. He urged them in the strongest terms to recognize that God has sent His Messiah, and they should repent.

We must understand there had been centuries of prophecies about His coming. They were about to miss Him because of their hypocrisy and dedication to rules over relationship with God. These parables grow more and more direct.

First, Jesus told the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In this story, five virgins prepare for the bridegroom’s coming by ensuring they have oil for their lamps. The other five do not make sure they have oil. The bridegroom tarries, and they become drowsy. When the bridegroom arrives, the five prepared virgins are allowed into the wedding feast, but the five unprepared ones are shut out.

Second, Jesus told the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In this story, a man on a journey trusts three servants with three different amounts of money. Two of them invested their talents well and made more. A third feared the master, so he hid his money in the ground. When the master returns and calls them to account, he is angry with the third servant and gives his one talent to the one who now has the most. Then Jesus says this master “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

The ever more direct and descriptive message of these parables was that there are choices we make now that impact our lives for eternity. Jesus had many disciples following Him, but many were hardening their hearts.

In fact, the first verses of Matthew 26 describe the impact these sermons had on Jesus and the religious leaders. After giving these parables, Jesus told his followers that he would be crucified when the Passover came; meanwhile, “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (Matthew 26:1-3).

This third parable, the sheep and goats, finishes Jesus’ warning. In it, Jesus clarified to His listeners that some of them were deceiving themselves. Some believed they’d earned entrance into His kingdom, but they would be surprised during the sorting and judgment.

friends in face masks due to COVID-19 helping at food pantry small group serving

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Biserka Stojanovic

Who Are “The Least of These”?

The Bible does make clear in many places that it is always right to care for people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or in prison. We represent a loving God who tells us to love as He loves. Throughout Scripture, God provides for the poor, the needy, the alien, the ill, and those who are cast out.

Mother Teresa famously translated “the least of these” to mean all the poor. She saw the image of Christ reflected in every person to whom she ministered. We are all made in His image and should care for the poor and needy with all the love, dignity, and honor we serve Jesus.

 Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

So, understanding this parable to mean a different group than the marginalized, most vulnerable, and the needy does not negate the Bible’s numerous commands to love and care for them.

However, in this parable, “the least of these” refers more to those who carry the gospel’s message. It refers to Jesus’ disciples who speak the truth of who He is and minister as His representatives.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the gospel of repentance, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse leprosy, and deliver from demons. He told them not to take much with them but to rely on the hospitality of those who would receive them in His name. In Matthew 10:42, He closes by saying, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

This is strikingly similar to His message in this parable. Many scholars believe that in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus refers to those spreading the good news. Therefore, “whatever you do to the least of these” refers to receiving (or rejecting) people sharing the gospel message.

This makes sense in the context and timeline of Jesus’ ministry. He knows how people are about to treat Him. He knows that persecution (and even martyrdom) lies ahead for His disciples. He warns that those who carry the gospel message represent Him. Caring for someone who shares the gospel is caring for Christ. To mistreat, neglect, or reject the one sharing the gospel is to mistreat, neglect, or reject Jesus.

How Can We Love “The Least of These” Today?

We can love “the least of these” in at least three ways.

1. Pay attention to and take seriously the message of those who speak in Jesus’ name. Study the gospels and the writings of the apostles. Listen and learn from mature, godly Bible teachers. Practice what you learn.

2. Care for the needs of those who work to spread the gospel in our times. From foreign missions to home missions to those persisting in the gospel under persecution. Provide through your resources. Intercede in prayer regularly. Sacrificially give in times of distress.

3. Represent Jesus well in all you do. Minister to the marginalized and needy. Seek justice. Give respect and practical aid to those who preach the gospel. Put nothing in their way.

These chapters of Matthew are as shocking today as they were when Jesus first delivered them. Devote time to studying them and practicing what He teaches.

The impact of these messages has eternal outcomes.

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Lori Stanley RoeleveldLori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy-to-read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. We hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in your life today.

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