Jesus’ parable of the judgment of the nations is often presented in ways that associate our treatment of anyone who is hungry, thirsty, a foreigner, naked, sick and imprisoned as synonymous with how we treat Jesus. Many Scriptures clearly call us to care for the poor, excluded, immigrants and prisoners. But numerous details in this parable suggest a different interpretation.
Jesus here teaches on the future judgment of non-Jews (the nations=ethnos), whom he commissions his disciples to evangelize and make disciples of before he departs (see Matthew 28:18-20). This parable is not about the judgment of nation states as institutions (though they will be judged), but about Jesus’ future response to how people treat his followers who go out spreading the word.
In this parable the King, who is also a Son of the Father in Heaven, returns and is enthroned. He calls non-Jews together and like a shepherd he separates sheep from goats. He says to the sheep, identifying himself as their shepherd:
“Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
“For I was hungry… thirsty… a stranger… naked… sick… imprisoned” and “you gave me food… drink… hospitality… prison visits.”
These “righteous” don’t understand when they had done this for him, this Son of Man– the shepherd King. They hadn’t recognized him or made the associations he names.
“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’ (Matt 25:40).
Who exactly are the King’s “brothers” and also “the least of these” in this parable?
For most of my ministry I read this as referring to anyone in the category of hungry, sick, naked, a foreigner, or prisoner. This interpretation puts permanent pressure on all non-Jews to serve everyone who fits into these categories—or else you will be accursed and sent into “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:42).
Is this the motivation Jesus is suggesting we should have as we minister to the poor, immigrants, refugees and prisoners? I don’t think so. God’s abundant and tender love for the poor and excluded is the only sustainable motivation.
I think that this parable is about God’s judgment of non-Jews who receive or reject followers of Jesus as they go to fulfill Jesus’ commission to make disciples, baptize and teach.
The King states “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”
In Matthew Jesus consistently refers to his disciples as his brothers distinct from blood brothers/sisters (see Matt 12:48; 28:10).
A key Scripture is Matthew 10:40-42, where Jesus says to his disciples:
“The one who receives you receives me,” and “whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink… shall not lose his reward.”
Jesus also calls fellow believers to treat one another as brothers and sisters (Matt 18:15 35; 23:8) of our common Father in heaven.
Western Christians may find identifying Jesus’ followers as the hungry, thirsty, naked, foreigners, imprisoned of this parable difficult due to our distance from the ragged and persecuted state of early Christ followers and today’s persecuted believers and precarious ministry workers. Yet Christians today are marginalized, persecuted and martyred like never before in history in many places throughout the world—including inside our prison system.
Jesus’ disciples who carry on his mission were sent out in vulnerability, without money, extra clothes or even sandals (Matt 10:10), as persecuted “sheep in the midst of wolves”—a big challenge to us now. They were often strangers and even foreigners as they went from village to village and to foreign lands, fleeing persecution (Matt 10:16-23). They were dependent upon people’s hospitality (those people of peace who received them). But they were often rejected, persecuted, imprisoned and martyred (Matt 5:10-12).
In Jesus’ parable, receiving them equals receiving him—a total identification. Jesus’ identifying himself, the King with the “least of these” represents his deliberate inclusion of the humblest of his recruits who go out on mission. When we receive a humble disciple of Jesus, Jesus says we are receiving the King, the Son of the Father himself.
May we welcome, provide for, care for and advocate for those who minister in Jesus’ name. May we intercede for the persecuted church worldwide, and be inspired ourselves to join the company of Jesus’ brothers and sisters—even the “least of these,” knowing that even if the world does not always receive us, Jesus has our back.
For further reflections on this, see my chapter eight of my new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement, which can be ordered here.