When asked to describe the essence of the Christian message, Mother Teresa would often hold up a child’s hand and recite Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” She would then jiggle the child’s fingers one by one and repeat: “You. Did. It. To. Me.”
Mother Teresa saw Jesus in the face of every needy person she ministered to because she understood “the least of these” to refer generally to the poor. And the soon-to-be-saint is not alone; many poverty advocates have successfully invoked it to raise millions and motivate the masses. The gravity of this phrase increases when one considers that Jesus says that divine judgment in the afterlife will be dolled out based upon how one treats the least. With such serious words spoken by the man Christians believe to be the Son of God, no wonder the phrase is one of the most frequently cited in the entire New Testament.
But could Mother Teresa and so many others have gotten it wrong? According to a growing chorus of prominent Bible scholars, Jesus was speaking about persecuted Christians rather than the poor. They claim their interpretation is consistent with the way the phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible and the majority view among Christians throughout history. But not everyone is buying what they’re selling.
“’The least of these’ were missionaries of Jesus—the apostles and others—who had been persecuted and then suffered imprisonment for following and preaching,” says Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Mother Teresa, social justice advocates, and liberation theologians have all colonized this term to their own agenda and made it about anyone poor.”