Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

The Least of These

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Ezekiel 34:11-24; Matthew 25:31-46


One thing about Jesus’ parables is that there is usually a twist, a surprise. The person who turns out to be the hero was not anticipated, like the Samaritan on the Jericho Road.  Some of the actions taken are out of proportion or perhaps even foolish, like the father who throws a party for his wayward son or the woman who spends all day looking for one lost coin and then calls her neighbors to celebrate when she finds it.  The people who heard Jesus’ parables for the first time were mostly likely surprised or shocked by something they contained. 

Some of the surprise factor is gone for us because most of us have heard them before.  The punchline only catches you off guard one time generally.  And some of the surprise factor may be gone because we already know what they mean.  Or we think we do.  I wonder if there are any surprises left in this parable of the sheep and the goats? 

Many of us here would describe ourselves as liberal or progressive Christians.  Not all of us identify that way, but many of us do.  One thing that might surprise us about this text is the idea that there will be a judgment.  We might be surprised or even dismayed to see the big-hearted, always-welcoming Jesus sitting on a throne and sorting people into those who are in and those who are out. 

If we are among those Christians who have always anticipated some kind of judgment, the surprise might be slightly different.  Because if this is a picture of Judgment Day, it doesn’t include a lot of things that preachers usually warn about – there’s no mention of drinking or smoking or gossiping,  and nothing at all about sex.  There is also no mention of being baptized, attending church or being affiliated with a particular denomination. 

Another big surprise could come in understanding what Jesus means when he talks about the “least of these”, as in verse 40 where it says ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

We think we know who the least of these are.  The least of these means anyone in need.  It means the people in the video clip that we just saw, the poor, the marginalized, the needy.  But would it surprise you if I told you that might not be what those words mean in Matthew’s gospel?  Would it surprise you to learn that scholars are divided into two camps about that term?

In one camp are the scholars who say that the “least of these” refers to all humans in need.  In the other camp are those who say that the “least of these”  is a technical term which Matthew uses to describe Christian missionaries. 

It might be a surprise to learn that these two camps do not divide neatly down the conservative-liberal lines.  A number of more liberal scholars whose work I respect fall into the second camp.  Let us to consider the reasons for their position:

1.      This judgment will occur after the worldwide mission work of the community of Jesus disciples, those verses at the end of Matthew we call The Great Commission where they are instructed to make disciples of all nations.   Notice the link that all nations will be gathered before the throne on the judgment day in the parable. [1]

2.     “ . . in Matthew, the term “brothers” always refers to a member of the Christian community, as does the phrase ‘little ones’.  “Least of these” is an intensive form of “little ones.’[2] 

3.     Jesus the Risen Christ is an important part of this scene.  He is called the Son of Man, the King, and Lord.  The Jesus who reigns on the throne pronounces the judgment which involves the actions which were committed against Jesus the suffering servant. The fancy word for this is Christology.  For Matthew, it is Christology that becomes the criterion of judgement.  Therefore, one scholar says, “This text cannot be used legitimately for biblical ‘support’ for a general humanitarian ethic without coming to terms with the Christology . . . in which it is inextricably embedded.[3] In other words, for Matthew, it is all about Jesus.    

If the “least of these” means all humans in need, then the implication is that the whole world will be judged according to the compassion they showed to hungry and hurting people.  If the “least of these” means Christians on mission, then the message is that the world will be judged on the basis of how it receives Christ’s emissaries.[4] 

I tend to believe that Matthew understood the second meaning, particularly as that would have provided important comfort to his community which was being persecuted as Christ’s Body in the world.

If the idea that the “least of these” could be something other than what you always thought it was, I invite you just  to sit with that possible surprise for a bit.

For Jesus’s listeners and Matthew’s readers, this parable would have echoed the reading from the prophet Ezekiel. In the first part of chapter 34, Ezekiel prophesies against the kings of Israel.  Shepherd was a common metaphor for a king.  These kings have ruled harshly, taking care of themselves first.  Because of their corruption and misrule, the sheep-people have been scattered into exile.  God has had enough of that, so God says, "I will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost. I will bring back those who have strayed. I will bind up the crippled. I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.” 

I love that line “I will feed them with justice.”  Walter Bruggemann says, ‘The Bible has a clear and odd notion of justice.  It does not mean that one gets what one deserves.  Rather  it means that one gets what one needs in order to live, no matter how weak or marginal one is.” [5]

Biblical justice is about distribution of resources, not vengeance.  It is concerned that one get what one needs in order to live.  Like the parable, this is also a judgment passage.  God’s judgment is against the rulers who did not provide care and justice for God’s people.  And there is judgment also for the sheep.  In verse 11, God’s attention turns to the flock, to the sheep who have injured another, jockeyed for advantage or exploited or polluted the resources intended for all.  Here there is also a separating of sheep and sheep, goats and rams. 

The section closes with Ezekiel’s words about the one good shepherd whom God will place over the flock whom we Christians understand to be Jesus. That echo would also have sounded in the ears of Jesus’ listeners and Matthew’s readers.

* * *

This parable is Jesus’ last teaching before his Passion.  Right after this, Matthew tells the terrible story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, during which Jesus will be arrested and imprisoned, (I was in prison and you visited me)

stripped naked,  (I was naked and you clothed me)

and he will cry out with thirst before he dies (I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink).

and he will cry out with thirst before he dies. 

It is this One, this One who is unjustly arrested and put on trial, this One who is beaten and stripped, thirsty and crucified, this One who said “I lay down my life for the sheep.”  This One will also judge.

I find one last surprise in this parable.  The surprise is that neither the sheep nor the goats recognize Jesus.  The goats say “When did we see you Lord?  If we had known that was you in prison, you who was hungry, you who was thirsty – of course we would have visited you, fed you, comforted you, if we had only known it was you.” 

But the sheep, the ones who did acts of kindness also say, “When did we see you hungry, Lord?”  Rev. David Buttrick writes, “These people did not see Christ’s face in hungry or thirsty or naked or lonely people.  They emphatically did not visit jails anticipating a Jesus incognito.  All they saw when they spotted a hungry person was a hungry person.” [6]

Buttrick also says, “The charitable people beloved by their Lord were not driven by religious motives and were certainly not pandering for religious reward.  The problem with a piety that sees Christ hidden in every neighbor is that it is detached spiritually and does not focus on actual neighbors.  Our religion must let us see and serve the actual neighbor, warts and all.”[7]

This parable is more complicated than we might have thought.  And by now, I might have made it even more confusing.  I have tried to suggest that “the least of these” is Matthew’s way of describing people on mission for Jesus.  So, you might take from that the idea that Christians don’t need to be concerned about serving the lost and the least, the left-out and left behind, but that’s not what I intend to convey at all. 

Jesus’ own ministry was full of these acts of feeding and welcoming and clothing and healing and visiting.  He taught his disciples to perform these manifestations of the reign of God  to counter injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to usher in shalom.  If the “least of these” are Christian missionaries, they are also performing these actions as commanded by Jesus.

Those of us who attended the CABA meeting yesterday heard a compelling presentation about the Region’s new partnership in Rwanda.  Suzi and Jim Harriff have been going to Rwanda for the last twelve years.  Suzi described for us the situation in Rwanda in 1994.  At that time, Rwanda was considered one of the most Christian nations on the continent, with 90% of the population identifying as Christian.  April 3, 1994 was Easter Sunday.  On that day churches were full all over the country as Christians celebrated the Resurrection.  But by April 7, just four days later, the genocide had begun.

Over the next 100 days, some 800,000 people would be killed, thousands of them literally inside church buildings where they had sought sanctuary.  Suzi said that people ask how could such violence happen in a supposedly Christian country.  Her answer is that it can happen when faith is shallow, when salvation comes through  magic words and cheap grace, but no real discipleship.  She said that if any other allegiance -- to tribe, political party, family, form of government - if any other loyalty surpasses our loyalty to Jesus, then we may also have shallow faith.  She spoke of a deep faith, a heart faith, where our sustained commitment is always to identify first with Jesus, so that our differences with others are never enough to keep us from loving them.

I thought about that and I thought about this parable.  I thought about the part where even the righteous sheep don’t recognize Jesus.  I wonder. . . maybe it is not so much that we are supposed to look for Jesus in the marginalized, the poor, those in need . . .  but perhaps we are to so identify with Jesus, to allow ourselves always to be being transformed by Christ, so that we look out towards everyone as if Jesus is within us looking out.  Could it be that we are to try, not to see Jesus in others, but to see others as Jesus would see them?

What if “the least of these” does, in fact refer to the Christian community and the main thrust of the parable is that the world will be judged on how they treat those who come in Christ’s name.  Presbyterian scholar Tom Long says, “it is important to note that the parable calls these Christians ‘the least,’ not the ‘greatest’; they come to the world not in limousines and silk, but hungry and thirsty.  They are not the power elite or the moral majority, forcing their will on their nations; they are identified with the weak of the earth, and are more likely to be found in hospitals and prisons than in palaces.”

What I take from that is that if Christians are the least of these in Matthew’s time and also at the time of Judgment, then Christians will  always be the least of these.  We should not expect to be the movers and the shakers.  We should not anticipate exercising power, as the world generally understands that term.  We follow our Lord who was despised and rejected, a man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity.

Apparently, if you want to find Jesus, you should look among those who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Faithful disciples will be found in precisely the same place.[8]  Sisters and brothers, may we be blessed to be in their number.  Amen.


[1] Warren Carter,  Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (Maryknoll, NY:  Obis Books, 2000), p. 492

[2] Tom Long,  Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997 ) p 285.

[3] Eugene Boring,  New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII, Matthew,  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 455.

[4] Tom Long, p. 285

[5]Walter Brueggemann, “Sheep-Preoccupied Shepherds” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 61. 

[6] David Buttrick Speaking Parables:  A Homiletic Guide (New York:  HarperCollins, 2000),  p. 126

[7] Buttrick,p. 126

[8] Tom Long, p. 286.