Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, recently penned an article entitled, “The ‘least of these’ are not the poor but the Christian baker, photographer, and florist.” In the article Burk argues exactly what the title implies: that the authors of the Christian Gospels used the phrase “least of these” to refer not to marginalized people groups (i.e., orphaned children), but rather “Jesus’ disciples who have been sent out into the world to preach the gospel.” Burk then makes the huge leap from “Jesus’ disciples,” a limited group of specific historical individuals, to contemporary Christian businesses who have obtained celebrity status among and substantial funding (over $109,000 and still climbing) from the Religious Right for discriminating against LGBT* individuals.
Even if the latter leap was not a completely unsupported claim and bad logic in itself, the former interpretation of the “least of these” to refer to Jesus’s disciples is poor exegesis. To understand why, let’s look at Burk’s arguments and the passages from the Gospels that he uses as support.
Burk begins with the phrase “least of these” as used in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:40 and 46. Here is that passage within its full context:
Now when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, at-that-time He will sit on the throne of His glory, and all the nations will be gathered in front of Him. And He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will make the sheep stand on His right side, and the goats on the left side. Then the King will say to the ones on His right side, ‘Come, the ones having been blessed of My Father— inherit the kingdom having been prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat. I thirsted, and you gave-a-drink-to Me. I was a stranger, and you brought Me in; naked, and you clothed Me. I was sick, and you looked-after Me. I was in prison, and you came to Me’. Then the righteous ones will respond to Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungering and we fed You, or thirsting and we gave-a-drink? And when did we see You a stranger and we brought You in, or naked and we clothed You? And when did we see You being sick or in prison and we came to You?’ And having responded, the King will say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, in-as-much-as you did it to one of the least of these My family-members, you did it to Me’. Then He will also say to the ones on the left side, ‘Depart from Me, the ones having been cursed, into the eternal fire having been prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you did not give Me something to eat. I thirsted, and you did not give-a-drink-to Me. I was a stranger, and you did not bring Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not look after Me’. Then they also will respond, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungering, or thirsting, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and we did not serve You?’ Then He will respond to them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, in as much as you did not do it to one of the least of these, neither did you do it to Me’. And these will go to eternal punishment, but the righteous ones to eternal life”.
Burk argues that this passage is “not talking generically about our obligation to care for the poor and needy.” He bases this claim on the following warrant: “The terms ‘least of these’ and ‘my brothers’ appear elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, and in each case the terms specifically refer to Jesus’ disciples who have been sent out into the world to preach the gospel.”
First, this is not true definitionally.
The phrase “least of these” comes from the Greek word ἐλαχίστων, a form of ἐλάχιστος, or, “the smallest, least.” Here is ἐλάχιστος in the Greek dictionary:
Burk is right that ἐλάχιστος and various forms of the word appear throughout the Gospel of Matthew. But he is wrong to claim that “in each case the terms specifically refer to Jesus’ disciples.” The word is used to refer to many things, such as:
- The least powerful nation, Matthew 2:1-6:
Now Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold— magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying “Where is the One having been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and came to pay-homage to Him”. And having heard it, King Herod was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. And having gathered-together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he was inquiring from them as to where the Christ was [to be] born. And the ones said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea. For thus it has been written through the prophet [in Mic 5:2]: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least [ἐλαχίστη] among the rulers of Judah. For One ruling will come out of you Who will shepherd My people Israel’”.
- The least significant part of the Mosaic Covenant, Matthew 5:17-19:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, one iota or one stroke will by no means pass away from the Law until all things take-place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these [ἐλαχίστων] commandments and in this manner teaches people— he will be called least [ἐλάχιστος] in the kingdom of the heavens.
This phrase, “least of these,” is clearly used as a diminutive. It is used when one is referring to a person, nation, or entity that is at rock bottom: the least powerful, the least significant, the least noteworthy. Considering that all 12 of Jesus’s disciples are usually described as power-hungry, wanting to perform more miracles, arguing about money, and all able-bodied males in a patriarchal society, it seems odd that Jesus would refer to any one of them as ἐλάχιστος. Remember, at this point in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is at the “top” of his career. None of the disciples would be even close to ἐλάχιστος.
Furthermore, the other word Burk argues applies to the disciples and only the disciples, “brothers” (or what I translate as “family-members”), applies to many different things as well. The word used in the Greek text is ἀδελφῶν, which comes from the root ἀδελφός. ἀδελφός literally means “son of a mother,” the plural being “sons of the same mother.” In a broader sense, the word means kinsmen, like the Latin concept of fraternity. In Matthew 20:2-24, we see ἀδελφῶν used specifically to refer to family-members as distinct from the 12 disciples:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, prostrating-herself and asking something from Him. And the One said to her, “What do you want?” She says to Him, “Say that these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right side and one on Your left side in Your kingdom”. But having responded, Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup which I am about to drink?” They say to Him, “We are able”. He says to them, “You will drink My cup— but the sitting on My right side and on the left side, this is not Mine to give, but it is for whom it has been prepared by My Father”. And having heard-of it, the ten were indignant about the two brothers [ἀδελφῶν].
Note here that ἀδελφῶν is used to refer to the actual blood-brothers and not to the disciples at large.
Most curiously, the one passages that Burk actually provides to prove his claim that these two words refer to Jesus’s 12 disciples — Matthew 12:48-50 — proves nothing of the sort. Here is the passage:
While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold— His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. And someone said to Him, “Behold— Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak to You”. But the One, having responded, said to the one speaking to Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And having stretched-out His hand toward His disciples, He said “Behold— My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in the heavens— he is My brother and sister and mother”.
While this passage does include the word μαθητὰς, which can mean “disciple,” “pupil,” “one who learns,” etc., it by no means implies in this context that Jesus is referring to his 12 disciples. Rather, the context seems to indicate that, as Jesus was “speaking to the crowds” and then “stretches out of his hand,” he is making a wide, inclusive gesture. In other words, all of the people listening to him are his family — people of every age, economic level, gender, nationality, and so forth. Jesus’s ministry was truly revolutionary in crossing “taboo” lines and reaching out to the marginalized, the sick, and the oppressed. This moment mirrors the lesson of the Good Samaritan, that the answer of “Who is my neighbor” is whoever is near you and needing help.
The terms Burk mentions, then, have multiple meanings and are used in multiple ways. It is sloppy exegesis to assume that just because a word is used one way in a text that the word should be assumed to be used the same way in other texts.
Second, the very context of Matthew 25:40, 46 disproves Burk’s thesis.
The context of this passage is not referring to Jesus sending out his disciples. The passage occurs immediately after Jesus publicly pronounces his “Seven Woes” to the hypocritical and unjust “teachers of the law and Pharisees” in a temple. Jesus and his disciples then leave the temple and his disciples ask him what will be the sign of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). Jesus then launches into a long speech of the end of times, the final part of which is Matthew 25:40, 46. The passage clearly refers to the return of Jesus, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory” and “he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” Jesus points out that he himself (the King) will separate the sheep from the goats (“the people” from “all the nations”), and how this happens will be based on whether or not the people feed, clothed, and cared for “the least of these,” or “one of the least of these My family-members” (what Burk translates as “brothers”).
In light of Jesus’s statements of who qualifies as “family” and/or “neighbor,” it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends to widen, not narrow, these definitions.
In the naive reading, Christ’s disciples provide food, drink, clothing, and fellowship to those in need. In the alternative reading, Christ’s disciples receive food, drink, clothing, and hospitality as those in need.
While I think there is a strong textual argument for the alternative reading, I don’t find the evidence sufficient to justify jettisoning the naive reading of the passage. And it matters how the Church reads this passage (as also so many others)…
The focus on “brothers” in the passage to motivate the alternative reading seems to miss the point altogether. Jesus’ reference to “the least of these my brothers” seems to be purposefully provocative and generalizing. I take Jesus to be making a constructive identification, akin to the move he makes when he shares the story of the good Samaritan in response to his interlocutor’s questions, “And who is my neighbor?” The point of Jesus’ language is precisely to broaden our understanding of the scope of kingdom activity, not to narrow it.
Burk wants to narrow the definition because, in his mind, “When people reject Jesus’ messengers, it’s a sign that they are rejecting Jesus’ message.” Thus Burk wants to put the focus on “believing the right thing,” as opposed to “doing the right thing.” This argument is similarly made in Christianity Today by Andy Horvath, Director of Ministries at Hunt Valley Church. Horvath makes the same argument Burk does and then adds,
Caring for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned isn’t taught elsewhere in the New Testament as the measuring stick for salvation. Can we really affirm that what ultimately matters is caring for the poor, not faith in Jesus?
This is a shockingly ignorant statement for someone ministering at a church, considering that, yes, the Christian Gospels do explicitly say that is the measuring stick we should use. Remember James 1:27?
This is pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father— to be looking-after orphans and widows in their affliction; to be keeping oneself unspotted by the world.
This, too, is the message of Jesus, as seen in how Jesus instructs the Apostle Peter in John 21:15-17:
Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you devotedly-love Me more than these?” He says to Him, “Yes, Lord. You know that I affectionately-love You”. He says to him, “Be feeding My lambs”. He says to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you devotedly-love Me?” He says to Him, “Yes, Lord. You know that I affectionately-love You”. He says to him, “Be shepherding My sheep”. He says to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you affectionately-love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you affectionately-love Me?”. And he says toHim, “Lord, You know all things. You recognize that I affectionately-love You”. Jesus says to him, “Be feeding My sheep.
Love for Jesus is demonstrated through praxis, through putting Jesus’s message into action by giving real, concrete assistance to those Jesus considers his family, in other words, the whole world. Jesus revolutionized the concept of family, tearing down the prejudices and barriers humans had constructed.
Third, Burk misses the opportunity to truly understand Jesus’s message about ἐλάχιστος by ignoring the importance of children.
I think the most blatantly inaccurate moment of exegesis in Burk’s article is the following:
In Matthew 18, Jesus refers to his disciples three times as “little ones” (vv. 6, 10, 14) with a term closely related to “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40, 46. So when Jesus talks about feeding, clothing, and caring for the “least of these” in Matthew 25:40, he’s talking about his disciples.
This is honestly a bit bewildering. Because the passage that Burk refers to as applying to Jesus’s disciples is the famous passage about Jesus welcoming children. Here is the Matthew 18 passage:
At that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greater in the kingdom of the heavens?” And having summoned a child, He stood him in the middle of them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are turned-around and become like children, you will never enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore whoever will humble himself like this child, this one is the greater one in the kingdom of the heavens. And whoever welcomes one such child on the basis of My name, welcomes Me. But whoever causes one of these little ones believing in Me to fall— it would be better for him that a donkey’s millstone be hung around his neck and he be sunk in the deep-part of the sea… See that you do not look-down-upon one of these little ones. For I say to you that their angels in the heavens are continually seeing the face of My Father in the heavens. What seems right to you? If a hundred sheep belong to any man and one of them went-astray, will he not leave the ninety nine on the mountains, and having gone, be seeking the one going astray? And if it comes about that he finds it, truly I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety nine not having gone astray. So it is not the will in-the-sight-of your Father in the heavens that one of these little ones should be-lost.
In context, the disciples were arguing about which one of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus then takes an actual child and tells the disciples they must (1) become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven and (2) welcome actual children into their midst rather than causing children further pain. This passage is about children, real, live children, not the disciples. And it is a powerful passage at that. Children during this historical period had virtually no rights and were considered the lowest of the low. As Richard A. Horsley, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts, says in Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel on page 189,
In ancient Palestine, as in most traditional agrarian society, children were the human beings with the lowest status. They were, in effect, not-yet-people. The [language that] “the kingdom of God” belongs to children sharpens the agenda of the whole Gospel story that the kingdom of God is present for the people, the peasant villagers, as opposed to the people of standing, wealth, and power.
Children during this time period often faced life-or-death situations daily on account of the harsh political rule of Rome creating many orphans. It is likely that many of these orphans followed Jesus around during his ministry. That he would take one such child and place that child in the center of his ministry was (and continues to be) a game-changing statement.
Furthermore, Jesus challenges his disciples to become like that child, to become someone who has no claim to authority or power. As Joyce Ann Mercer argues in Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood on page 53,
Belonging to/receiving/entering the kingdom of God comes from solidarity with—and not separation from—those who are lowliest and the least, the most vulnerable to the hardships of imperial oppression. Such solidarity displayed itself concretely in welcoming those children left alone by parents enslaved by imperial conquest or debt slavery, or children who were themselves sold into debt slavery…Jesus called on his followers to welcome, touch, and bless those members of the society most precariously positioned, the children; not only “their own,” but also the children of others… The renewal of life with a new social order really does mean giving up all forms of domination, and not simply falling back into the same patterns they are trying to overcome. Receiving the kingdom of God as a little child, then, is a challenge to relinquish all claims of power and domination over others.
Ironically, Jesus’s challenge to become like, and welcome, “the least of these,” or the children — a challenge to relinquish all claims of power and domination and instead care for those on the margins of society — is a challenge to reject the very things Burk wants us to embrace. Jesus’s challenge is a call to forsake Christian celebrity, not double-down on positions of privilege.
- Dianna E. Anderson, “The God of the Lesser Things: Deny Burk Is Wrong About “The Least of These”
- James R. Rogers, “Serving the Least of These”
- Billy Kangas, “Who are the least in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats?”
Image source: JesusMafa.com.