those in prison...for the sake of the gospel
“And 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.'” (Matt 25:40) “Then he will answer them, saying, '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.'” (Matt 25:45) “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matt 25:46)
Jesus concluded His Olivet discourse by speaking of the final judgment that will commence at His return, probably to impress “upon his disciples the gravity of the commission to be heralds of the kingdom of the rule of God” (Howell, 302). To convey such eschatological matters, Christ borrowed a well known “end of day” scene in Palestine where “shepherds commonly herded sheep and goats together but separated them at day's end (sheep, with heavy wool, needed less shelter than goats)” (Elwell, 754). The sheep (animals of greater value and lighter color) represent those who will be redeemed while the goats represent those who will be damned. As Jesus recalls the great works of the sheep and great omissions of the goats to Him, both groups question when they ever did/didn't do these things for Jesus. Jesus then identifies that whoever served “the least of these my brothers” served Jesus. The crucial question then becomes, who are these “brothers” that we should be serving?
Commentator Broadus simply states that “the least of these brethren” refers to any of Christ's followers, many of which were “poor and of little apparent importance,” (Broadus, 510)1 but Christ “identifies himself not merely with the distinguished, but with those whom men would lightly esteem” (Broadus, 511). Nolland makes a similar statement by drawing attention to the fact of “how important for Matthew cross links between his materials are” (Nolland, 739). Thus he parallels “the least of these my brothers and sisters” in Matthew 24:40 & 45 to other usages of the phrase in Matthew 10:42 and 18:10 where it was used of Jesus' disciples and believers (who entered Heaven via their child-like faith). Howell makes a narrower distinction, referring it to “Jesus' disciples who go forth to proclaim the kingdom at great personal sacrifice...[and]...in prosecuting their mission they are imprisoned, become hungry and thirsty, become ill, and are at times without warm clothing” (Howell, 302).
At first glance these three definitions do not seem congruent, yet once one considers the difference between the visible and the invisible church all three responses arrive at the same conclusion. For not everyone who calls themselves a disciple of Christ truly is. Only those who produce fruit consistent with God's Mission in “going forth to proclaim the kingdom” are Christ's disciples. While the “least” may not suffer the most, they will still participate in God's mission and their “good deeds done to Jesus' faithful brothers show that [they] the benefactors are equally loyal to the elder Brother” Jesus. In contrast, the goats who don't care for God's Mission and His brethren, clearly are not one of Jesus' brethren and will not spend eternity as a part of God's family.
The impacts of this passage on evangelism as a way of life are immense, especially at a time when only 25% of “Christians” strongly believe that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others who believe differently” (Barna).2 First, the “least of these my brothers” does not refer to anyone and everyone in the world as commonly assumed (not that this should alter our behavior toward anyone since we are not to judge who is and isn't saved and a Christian's life toward others should “shine like a city on a hill"). Furthermore, it is true that “Jesus' compassion for the materially and physically needy is everywhere evident” (Elwell, 754), but this passage addresses a very different issue, for Christ's “chief concern is man's relationship to God, not his environment; and his singular mission is to save from sins, not from poverty or hunger” (Elwell, 754). Broadus may say it best recognizing this passage as presenting “a notable exemplification of sins of omission” (Broadus, 511). In a day when sharing, liking, and tweeting our favorite things is all the rave, its difficult to see how those who've been redeemed by Christ wouldn't hold him as their favorite thing and be sharing, liking and tweeting about Him. Those who feel they don't have that responsibility, need ask whether or not they've truly repented and accepted Christ's forgiveness for their sins.