“The Least of These”
After seeing that Jesus lived a life concerned about others, particularly those who were hurting and lost, we should expect that Jesus also would have a lot to say about care for others. He did.
Jesus’ teaching is practical, focused on what it means to live as a follower of God. As such, we can see that Jesus urges us toward acts of justice, kindness, and mercy, like those that Jesus Himself did while here on earth. If we follow His example, we will minister to others, as He did.
Jesus also talked about the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus’ description, the kingdom of heaven is a reality that we can be part of, even now. It is a way of life that functions with a different set of priorities and values and morals than are found in earthly kingdoms. Jesus’ teachings set out the blueprint for this kingdom, and it includes a strong focus on how we serve God and, in serving Him, how we are to relate to others. We also discover that serving others—caring for their needs and uplifting them—is one way in which we can directly offer service to God.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 24.
Jesus’ longest sermon—or collection of teachings—is the Sermon on the Mount. His three-chapter survey of life in God’s kingdom begins with a statement of values that has come to be known as the Beatitudes.
Along with the deep spiritual application of these words, we must not miss the practical reading of them, as well. Jesus talked about recognizing the poverty in ourselves and in our world. He also talked about righteousness (translated as “justice” in some Bible versions), humility, mercy, peacemaking, and purity of heart. We should take note of the practical difference that these qualities will make in our lives and in our world when they are lived out. Such a practical reading is emphasized in Jesus’ following statements in which He urged His disciples to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13–16).
When used appropriately, salt and light are to make a difference in the contexts in which they are added. Salt brings out flavors, as well as preserves the foods it is added to; it is symbolic of the good that we should be for those around us. Similarly, light pushes back the darkness, revealing obstacles and hazards, making a house or city safer, and providing a point to navigate by, even when some distance away. Like a light on a dark night, Jesus said, “ ‘Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ ” (Matt. 5:16, NIV).
Both these salt and light symbols point us to the responsibility of disciples to influence and improve the lives of those around them. We are salt and light when we live lives that mourn appropriately, have purity of heart, practice humility, show mercy, make peace, and endure oppression. So, Jesus begins this sermon with the call to embody these sometimes “undervalued values” of His kingdom.
When we consider the teaching of Jesus, it is worthwhile to keep in mind the people He was talking to and the circumstances in which they lived. Jesus had begun to attract large crowds of people from the regions where He had ministered (see Matt. 4:25, 5:1). Most were common people, living under the imperial rule of the Roman Empire, but some were the Jewish rulers and religious leaders. The existence of the common people was difficult. They had few choices for their own lives, burdened by heavy taxation and weighed down by religious tradition. In teaching these people, Jesus was obviously concerned with offering them a way to live well, to live with dignity and courage, whatever their circumstances. One example of this is found in Matthew 5:38–48. In the English language, these instructions—“turn the other cheek,” “give them the shirt off your back,” and “go the extra mile”—are so well known as to be clichés. But this familiarity belies the radical actions and attitudes that Jesus is teaching here.
The scenarios Jesus described were common experiences for many of His listeners. They were often violently assaulted by their “superiors” or masters. They were often indebted and lost their property to the landlords and lenders. They were often pressed into labor by the occupying Roman soldiers. Jesus taught the people to respond with integrity, to treat the oppressors better than they deserved, and, by so doing, to resist the loss of their humanity. While these oppressors tried to exert their power, the people always had the freedom to choose how they would respond, and by resisting nonviolently and responding generously, they exposed the evil of the oppression and injustice that was being done.
When Jesus was questioned, He often concluded His answers with an outcome quite different from what the questioner was seeking. In response to the instruction in Leviticus 19:18 (NIV) to “love your neighbor as yourself,” it seems many of the religious people of His day had spent much time and energy debating the extent and limits of this “neighbor” principle. Jesus had already sought to expand His followers’ understanding of this term, urging that not only should they love their neighbors, but they should do good to everyone: “ ‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ ” (Matt. 5:44, 45, NIV).
But when an expert in religious law sought to test Jesus, he fell back on the much-debated question: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). In response, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, but the ultimate response to the lawyer’s question was not to define the “neighbor” terminology. Instead, Jesus said—in effect—“Go and be a neighbor to anyone who needs your help” (see Luke 10:36, 37).
As was common in Jesus’ teaching, His harshest criticism was aimed at those who claimed to be religious but showed little concern for the suffering of others. “In the story of the good Samaritan, Christ illustrates the nature of true religion. He shows that it consists not in systems, creeds, or rites, but in the performance of loving deeds, in bringing the greatest good to others, in genuine goodness.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 497.
In Jesus’ teaching, He points to an outsider, someone considered unfaithful to God, to demonstrate what the call of God is to all who claim to be His followers. Like His first hearers, when we come to Jesus asking what we need to do to inherit eternal life, He ultimately instructs us to go and be a neighbor to anyone in need.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19–31), Jesus contrasts the lives of two men—one rich, one desperately poor. In the absence of social welfare, community hospitals, or soup kitchens, it was a common practice for those in need, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged, to beg outside the homes of the wealthy. It was expected that the rich would be generous in sharing a little of their wealth to alleviate the suffering. But in this story, the rich man was “selfishly indifferent to the needs of his suffering brother.”—Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 261. In life, their respective circumstances remained unchanged; but in death, as judged by God, their positions were dramatically reversed.
There is no evidence in either of these stories that the men became rich by doing anything wrong. Perhaps they had both worked hard, managed carefully, and been blessed by God. But something seems to have gone wrong in their attitudes toward life, God, money, and others, and this cost them significantly and eternally.
Drawing from popular afterlife imagery of Jesus’ day, the story of the rich man and Lazarus teaches that the choices we make in this life matter for the next one. How we respond to those who seek or need our help is one way our choices and priorities are demonstrated. As “Abraham” points out to the suffering rich man, the Bible provides more-than-adequate direction for choosing better: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them” (Luke 16:29, NIV).
Jesus taught that the temptations of wealth—whether having it, keeping it, or seeking it—can draw us away from His kingdom, away from others and toward self-centeredness and self-reliance. Jesus called us to seek His kingdom first and to share the blessings we receive with those around us, particularly those in need.
Another occasion when Jesus was asked a question and gave an answer quite different from what might have been anticipated is found in the sermon recorded in Matthew 24 and 25. The disciples came to Jesus and asked about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the time of Jesus’ return (see Matt. 24:1–3). The conclusion of Jesus’ extended answer to this question referred to feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. He assured them, “When you did it to—or refused to help—one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (see Matt. 25:40, 45).
This is connected with the questions that began this teaching as a picture of the final judgment. Throughout Matthew 24, Jesus presented more direct answers to the disciples’ questions, giving signs and warnings about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age; but He emphasized the need to “keep watch” and live well in light of the promise of His second coming. In the first part of Matthew 25, the story of the wise and foolish virgins urged the need for preparation for an unexpected or delayed return; the story of the three servants introduces the need to live well and productively while waiting; then the parable of sheep and goats is much more specific about the tasks God’s people should be busy with.
Jesus’ statement—that when we serve others, we are doing it to Him— should transform all our relationships and attitudes. Imagine being able to invite Jesus for a meal or visit Him in the hospital or prison. Jesus said that we do this when we offer that service to people in our community. What an incredible opportunity He offers to us in this way!
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “The Good Samaritan,” pp. 497–505, and “ ‘The Least of These My Brethren,’ ” pp. 637–641, in The Desire of Ages; “ ‘A Great Gulf Fixed,’ ” pp. 260–271, and “ ‘Who Is My Neighbour?’ ” pp. 376–389, in Christ’s Object Lessons.
“Christ tears away the wall of partition, the self-love, the dividing prejudice of nationality, and teaches a love for all the human family. He lifts men from the narrow circle that their selfishness prescribes; He abolishes all territorial lines and artificial distinctions of society. He makes no difference between neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. He teaches us to look upon every needy soul as our neighbor and the world as our field.”—Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 42.
“The standard of the golden rule is the true standard of Christianity; anything short of it is a deception. A religion that leads men to place a low estimate upon human beings, whom Christ has esteemed of such value as to give Himself for them; a religion that would lead us to be careless of human needs, sufferings, or rights, is a spurious religion. In slighting the claims of the poor, the suffering, and the sinful, we are proving ourselves traitors to Christ. It is because men take upon themselves the name of Christ, while in life they deny His character, that Christianity has so little power in the world.”—Pages 136, 137.
Summary: Jesus’ teachings set out a different way of living for those who are citizens and agents of the kingdom of God. Building on the foundation of the Old Testament Scriptures, He echoed and broadened the focus on caring for the poor and oppressed, emphasizing that His followers will live as people of compassion and mercy while they wait for His return.