June 2, 2021

​Homeless Religion

A fervent cry goes up to heaven: “God . . . God . . . if You’re there, do something!” Over and over. Oblivious of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25.

Judgment Criteria

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus and disciples are on the Mount of Olives. Jesus opens the curtains, gives them a glimpse of the future and sets out the judgment criteria for all nations and all people. He unveils a typical judgment scene with questions and responses. He will separate all the people and put some on His right and some on His left, as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. Some will experience judgment positively; others, negatively. Some are called blessed; others, cursed. Some inherit eternal life; others, eternal death.

The solemn declaration, “Truly,” echoes back and forth in verses 40 and 45 and draws attention from the drama of questions and answers to the central message: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did [or did not do] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did [or did not do] for me” (NIV). If verses 40 and 45 state the criteria for the judgment, then they must be the mandate for our mission. To implant Jesus’ mission of compassion and ignite our hearts, we must successfully defend our understanding of at least two things:

First, who are “these”? Does Jesus use “least of these” to refer to somepoor persons or allpoor persons? “These” are the poor ones Jesus talks about—the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned ones. So the “least of these” are some of “these”—some of the poor. Jesus’ disciples have a mission of compassion to all poor persons, and He is especially keen that our mission touch a set of the poor that He calls “least.”

Second, whom does Jesus call “least”? Long ago, people interpreted Jesus’ use of “least” positively, as those noble saints who suffer for His cause. Today people interpret Jesus’ use of “least” negatively, as every suffering poor person in the world. What is interesting is that both then and now, people believe that Jesus defines “least” using money, and they do the same.

It seems logical, doesn’t it? Jesus talks about basic necessities—food, drink, shelter, clothes, health care, transportation to visit the incarcerated. Obviously Jesus describes an economic situation and “the least” as the hungriest, thirstiest, most unclothed, sickest, and most hopeless of the imprisoned. In twenty-first-century North America these “least” would fall far below the poverty line set by the federal government, and they may be inside or outside the church.

Secular or Religious?

If you believe that Jesus’ “least” is some economic result, then you can probably embrace Christian missions simply as social action to the poor and oppressed: providing real help to real people with real problems. If people are defined by social standards, why should missions be anything else? It makes sense, because economic needs demand at least an economic response. The bottom line is that missions is about money.

This kind of Christianity is very attractive to the world because it creates a religion based firmly on deeds of love: practical, all-inclusive, and, supposedly, more “authentic.” There is nothing about this religion that says it has to be Christian or rooted in Jesus. The good news is that it is sensitive to the suffering in the world! Would the Judge approve? Absolutely! In Matthew 25 Jesus promotes practical, inclusive, and authentic religion.

However, this religion of love serves an eviction notice on Jesus: there is no need for His kind of salvation. It is a “homeless religion” because the religion is not Christian, not Buddhist, not anything. This “homeless religion” creeps into the Christian community when Christians decode “least” using some perceived economic index. Missions, then (if you could call it that), really have little, if any, relation to how Christians think or what we believe—it’s all about what we doin the world. Would the Judge approve? Not in Matthew 25! For Jesus, life is not just all about what we are seen to do.

They were willing to scratch the back of someone who has no hands.

Third-century theologian Origen suggests that we think about the deeds of love and the church’s mission through spiritual lenses: “being nourished with spiritual food, clothed with the clothing of wisdom.”2 To take in a stranger means someone takes Christ into their heart.3 Would the Judge approve? Absolutely! In Matthew 25 Jesus cares about what we believe.

This purely spiritual approach transforms Christian missions into a reasoning response to world suffering. Mission becomes supremely about right belief: about what Christians think. It has little, if any, bearing on what we do. Would the Judge approve? Not in Matthew 25! For Jesus, life is not just all about what we think.

So what does our Lord expect when He comes? Who are the “least of these”?

Economic “Least of These”?

For Jesus, “least” is not some economic result. To call the poor “least” simply because they are poor is not His character; neither should it be ours.

Jesus teaches His disciples that internals are more important than externals and equity more than equality. His lessons depict contrasting sets of end-time people: one ready; another, not; this servant faithful/wise, that servant wicked (Matt. 24:45-51); these virgins are foolish; those virgins are wise (Matt. 25:1-13); these servants are good/faithful; that servant is lazy/wicked (verses 14-30); righteous sheep, cursed goats (verses 31-46). What characteristic is common among members of each group? It’s not economic. Although representatives from each pairing appear almost identical from the outside, Jesus exposes the stark heart differences inside. Why would Jesus now use external economic benchmarks to describe people?

Notice that economic pricing of humans discounts, divides, and dehumanizes; people will spend all their lives working desperately not to be the economic “least.” Would the Judge approve? Not in Matthew 25!

Time is money. We know. Unfortunately, in our search for security in this life, money gets in the way of missions when we give money priority over God and people. It’s difficult to find time for missions with busy lives. Is Jesus asking that we calculate some time in our busy schedule to fit some missions here and there? Not in Matthew 25!

In Matthew 25 what matters most to Jesus are genuine acts of compassion that flow from a heart that is being transformed. Jesus knows that apples don’t make apple trees—apple trees make apples.

Those whom Jesus commends are unaware that they do anything special for anyone! They make no special effort. All they do is act like humans to other humans in the course of being human. It’s who they are in the normal course of their lives: participating with others, with respect, love, compassion, selflessness. They spend no time calculating expected reward or benefit. No tit-for-tat. They are willing to scratch the back of someone who has no hands. That is why they win approval from Jesus. This is how we’ll win the world for Jesus.

Will economics or Jesus guide you to the “least”?

Jesus’ “Least of These”

To hear the heartbeat of Jesus’ “least” in Matthew 25:40, 45, we should listen for hints He left elsewhere in Matthew. The best place for us to hear what Jesus’ “least” means in verses 40 and 45 is His conversation about “least” in Matthew 5:17-19, because the Sermon on the Mount flavors everything He does in Matthew. Jesus says there: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have . . . come . . . to fulfill them. . . . Anyone who sets aside o
ne of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (NIV).

That’s the verdict! Jesus calls “least” anyone who breaks/ignores/nullifies the least commandment. Since Jesus comes to fulfill the smallest details of the Law (verse 18), there is really no commandment that He downgrades to “least.”

Might it be that the “least of these” in Matthew 25 are poor persons who do not obey the commandments; those poor who are unbelievers; least, not because of any deficiency in their humanity, not because of the size of their bank account, not because of their ethnicity, not because of their education; but least because they trivialize the commandments, or they teach others to do so! Jesus seems to be saying: “I expect you to show compassion to any person who is poor, even to the unbeliever. Your mission is not only to show mercy to the poor who are members of your faith community.” “If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?” (Matt. 5:47, NLT).4

In Matthew 25 Jesus makes it clear that our mission is not only spiritual but also social. Jesus is talking as much about motive as about movement; about thought as about action; about why as about what; about being as about doing.

Jesus calls us all to see that the way we live today has eternal consequences—for ourselves and for others as well. Jesus loves us so much that he will hold us eternally responsible for how we treat the poor: “Whatever you did for one of . . . the least of these, you did for Me.”

Message and Mission

Three days later Jesus dies (Matt. 27:50). To save the poor. To save the “least of these.” To save the ones on the right. To save the ones on the left. For “the Son of man [came] . . . to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28, NIV). How’s that for a religion of love?

Three days later Jesus lives! (Matt. 28:6). Savior to the poor. To the “least of these.” To the ones on the right. To the ones on the left. This is the paradoxical life-changing gospel: One lives; all can have eternal life! How’s that for all-inclusive?

The gospel is not homeless! It is rooted in Jesus! Our mission is rooted in Jesus. Real God. With real feelings. And real plans. For real people. How’s that for authentic?

We must allow Jesus to transform the way that we love. As He does, allow your heart to access your head and move your feet. Walk the talk!

Jesus says: “If the tables were turned, what would you want someone to do for you? Do that for them” (Matthew 7:12, author’s paraphrase). “Partner with Me and help people find where they need to be. Will you love each other for Me? Serve each other as people whom I love and cherish? It breaks My heart to hear: ‘God . . . God . . . if You’re there, do something!’ You go do it! (see Matt. 14:16). I am sending you.”

  1. This article, now condensed for space, was originally a sermon (Pioneer Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church, Berrien Springs, Michigan, March 6, 2021). Some of the presentation’s oral style has been retained.
  2. Ulrich Luz, “The Final Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46): An Exercise in ‘History of Influence’ Exegesis,” trans. Dorothy Jean Weaver, in Treasures New and Old: Recent Contributions to Matthean Studies, ed. David R. Bauer and Mark Allan Powell (Atlanta: Scholars Press), pp. 271-310.
  3. See Klyne R. Snodgrass, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 551.
  4. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Jenifer A. Daley, associate pastor for administration at Pioneer Memorial church, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, is an interdisciplinary theologian with degrees in theology and business.