“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40).
Who is being referenced? What do people who are hungry, thirsty, unknown, naked, ill or incarcerated have in common? More than lack of money, I think the uniting factor has something to do with capacity, power and social capital — the pecking order, if you will.
Women in my local church seem to be at opposite ends of the social ladder. One is the executive director of a local nonprofit. She’s articulate, intelligent and resourceful. She’s also fairly well-known in her field. She’s been invited to the White House and, on another occasion, she met with the U.S. surgeon general. Just this past week she led a major event at her state capitol.
One woman lives with a psychiatric disability. She receives government assistance and sometimes struggles with thoughts of suicide. She’s uncomfortable being around other people and seldom is understood. Her home is in pretty bad shape. In fact, her roof is caving in, and she has no means to repair or replace it. Plus a windstorm recently knocked over her mailbox, and she needs to fix it.
While both women would (hopefully) be welcomed in your local congregation, which woman would you prefer grace your church with her presence? Would you want the director who tithed every paycheck or would you want the woman whose financial need is beyond what many churches can absorb? Be honest. Which woman would you wholeheartedly embrace?
Which woman would you expect to be a blessing?
When I think of “the least of these,” my mind gravitates toward a person’s capacity — having been stretched beyond any anticipated threshold and not being positioned to do anything. With that in mind, do you think Jesus could ever be considered “the least of these”? Knowing He could not call the angels without sacrificing our salvation, do you think He felt as powerless as “the least of these”?
Though she was honoring Jesus, I’m wondering if the woman pouring perfume upon Him knew of His pending public humiliation. I’m wondering if we will one day hear her soul utter those prophetic words: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison?” (Matthew 25:44). I guess I’m wondering if “the least of these” are always so obvious.
Contribution Leads to Connection
I don’t remember how long I had been attending The Bridge Church in Glen Carbon, Illinois, before I was invited to participate in a 201 Spiritual Gifts class. A friend persuaded me to join, and, though I wasn’t very interested in temperament and similar tests, I went because she was my friend. That’s part of how connection works. Sometimes we do things more so because we are connected than for any other reason.
It was stated — both from the Sunday morning pulpit and during the class — that everyone was gifted in different ways, and each of us had something meaningful to contribute. What excited me the most is that we were expected to use our giftings in various areas of ministry and service. Everyone in the congregation had opportunity to become both a giver and receiver.
While not everyone may become both giver and receiver, and not all life seasons are the same, everyone should be afforded such a precious opportunity. There are “the least of these” because the poor will always be among us (Deuteronomy 15:11, Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8), but may we never be a people who produce “the least of these” because we have failed our brothers and sisters.
Most of us understand that all life has value, but do we understand that all life is created for service to the King? If “the least of these” are relegated to constantly being on the receiving end, then we rob people of the opportunity to exercise their own gifts and have mutual connection within the body of Christ.
Increasing Individual and Collective Capacity
Whether it’s a caste system in India or who gets the most recognition on social media, there is a real pecking order in this world. The stranger and the alien are placed in the same category as the criminal, as are people experiencing poverty and disabilities (Matthew 25:34–39).
Regardless of our own status, we’re taught to be Good Samaritans with aspirations of entertaining angels. So we must ask ourselves: If Jesus were seated at our soup kitchen, would it be enough to give Him a generous portion with a super-friendly smile or would we long to sit down and have a deep, meaningful conversation with Him?
Trust me, our neighbors in need long for that intimate conversation.
The two women I described at the onset of this article are actually the same person and beautifully illustrate the importance of focusing on what’s strong instead of what’s wrong. If people were “concerned” about her vulnerability to suicide, they might never invite her to lunch and might never discover that her life’s work has taken her to the White House.
The woman said the only time she truly felt like “the least of these” is when people failed to hear, validate and respond to her. She described a spiritual mentor who pours nothing but love into her life for about two hours each month. Her mentor regards her as cherished, competent and capable.
As you go about your ministry, I encourage you to see the “least of these” through the lens of royalty. What if the field is this world and the treasure that is not in plain sight is the joy we take in the least of these? Let us bless others with eyes that see and ears that hear so that we may experience the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Let us humble ourselves to the least of these.
AJ French serves as the chief executive officer for Gift of Voice (giftofvoice.com), a mental health and trauma recovery training center that offers education for individuals, communities and churches.4