who are the "least of these"?

I was pleasantly surprised to see this article on the Jesus Manifesto site last week: "Who are the 'Least of These?'" (That site seems to be having problems right now, so I'll quote most of it here.)

There is a judgment scene in Matthew 25 which has become a new favorite of progressive evangelicals and Christians in North America (the word ‘Sojourners’ comes to mind). Matthew recounts a series of parables Jesus told about what kinds of events his followers ought to expect at the eschatological ‘coming of the Son of Man’ (cf. Daniel 7), a series which culminates in the separation of the ’sheep’ and the ‘goats’. Contra the conservative imagination of judgment which affirms salvation by grace through faith, and not by ‘works’, the separation of sheep and the goats, in the very words of Jesus, is a function of how they have treated ‘the least of these’—presumably the poor, the outcast and the downtrodden (salvation by works?). Hurray! cry the progressive hordes, for they have rediscovered a biblical impetus for social work.

I would love to work slowly through some of the crucial concepts here: ’salvation’, ‘grace’, ‘faith’, ‘works’, and so on. I have neither the space nor the competency to do so, but needless to say, the biblical picture is far richer and more complex than its various ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ flattenings. What I want to do here is make a simple observation. The ‘least of these’, in Matthew 25, are adamantly not the generic ‘poor’, or otherwise socially disadvantaged. And since misreading (i.e. mistreating) Scripture is a recipe for a faithless Christianity, it is well worth taking a closer look at the text.

The New English Translation reads: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. [...] And the king will answer them [i.e. the surprised, righteous, 'sheep'], ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me’” (Matthew 25:31-40). Read closely and in context, there are four parties in this scene-the Son of Man enthroned, the sheep, the goats, and the ‘least of these’. The important point, for my purposes, is that the ‘least of these’ are the king’s ‘brothers and sisters’. And as much as we want to affirm God’s solidarity with the poor, within the context of this passage (which begins roughly at the beginning of Matthew 24), Jesus is talking about himself (the Son of Man, soon to be enthroned) and his family, his disciples, who are, or soon will be, ‘the least of these’.

The significance of this point might be rephrased by saying that the judgment parable of Matthew 25 is a description not of a universal judgment, but rather of a judgment of the (pagan) nations, soon to be hosts of the newly exiled (from Jerusalem, because of its imminent destruction) Christians. The disciples are showing Jesus the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 24:1), and he launches into a long diatribe against the Temple, saying, basically, that sucker’s comin’ down. Not only that, but the disciples will be persecuted and betrayed (Matthew 24:9), and things are going to get so bad, the inhabitants of Judea are going to have to flee to the hills (Matthew 24:16)-and many people won’t make it (Matthew 24:22). Which is why Jesus says: be ready! This is the point of the reference to the days of Noah (24:37ff), the reference to thieves in the night (24:43), the parable of the faithful and wise slave (24:45ff), the parable of the ten virgins (25:1ff—note the introductory phrase, ‘at that time…’), and the parable of the talents (25:14ff). It is because Jesus foresees things getting so tough for his disciples that he makes the prophetic announcement of judgment upon the nations based on their treatment of his disciples (who will be displaced and poor). Jesus cares for his fledgling family, and is promising that God will care for them, and will be with them, even as they depend upon Gentiles, upon pagans.

...The upshot of all this, beyond simply not misusing a biblical expression, is the reminder that Jesus’ first followers didn’t expect to be world-changers or world-fixers (at least, not by their own strength). Rather, they expected danger and vulnerability—in economic and political dimensions—and rested in the sovereign care of the Creator. We too often forget the humble beginnings of the Christian family.

I agree with the author's interpretation of this parable; actually I agreed years ago in the journal entries "All the Nations..." and the two that follow. The usual "serve Jesus in the poor" misinterpretation of this parable can lead to much spiritual confusion and misdirection if we actually try to apply it.

And, hopefully, we can see that it wasn't just the early followers of Jesus that he was describing as the "least of these." We should expect the same for ourselves now—both the peril and the care of God for us in that peril—as we follow him ever more closely.