The least of these.
I keep thinking about the least of these. I know Jesus is referring to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the incarcerated. But I keep wondering what is it that makes them “the least.” I think some translations of the Bible try to soften the implication by using the phrase, “no matter how unimportant they seem.” Although “they seem” is really an interpretive addition not found in the Greek text.
So why are the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the incarcerated considered to be least or unimportant? These are the marginalized—those who live just outside the mainstream of community. Put another way—why are those of us who are bound together by community thought to have more value or to be more important than anyone else? And why does Jesus identify so clearly with the least? These are the questions I have pondered this week.
Jesus refers to the least as family. As members of Christ’s family, they are members of our family as well. We are called to reach out in ministries of mercy and compassion to members of our family who have fallen outside the connection of community. We are called to minister to the marginalized in ways that restore that sense of community.
Least is not a really a value judgment here. Least is a relational statement. The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the incarcerated are least because we have let them slip away from community. Restored to community, they have as much value as the rest of us. Maybe more—because on the edge of community, that is where we find Christ.
I have worked with home building and repair ministries, I have prepared and served meals at shelters and soup kitchens, I have volunteered at summer camps for children of incarcerated mothers, and I have visited with the homeless. I know that there is a kind of personal spiritual joy that comes along with this kind of service. Yet, I hope that this personal spiritual joy will never be the motivation for service—it is a natural byproduct.
When we serve those in need, we meet Christ and we experience Christ at work in ways that we would never know on our own. This is the motivation for service—to meet Christ and grow in our relationship with God. When we serve the least of these—our family—we grow as children of God because we are better connected to the whole family of God.
Service changes things. God changes us when we reach out in service to draw others into community. In service we experience God’s power to transform our lives and the life of the community as we learn and grow in faith becoming the people God wants us to be.