I have heard many ministry leaders refer to people with disabilities as “the least of these“. Although this is a benevolent inference drawn from Matthew 25:31 – 46, as someone who lives with a visible disability I don’t like it when people think of me as “the least of these,” especially if this contrasts with their view of themselves as empowered, self-sufficient or privileged.
I wonder how a member of the “least of these,” is supposed to read this passage?
… he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’Matthew 25:32-40 (NIV)
- Those who serve us will evidently be on the right side of Jesus. Does that automatically mean that we will be too?
- Does it make a difference whether we resist the charity of others or graciously receive it?
- Is it better to give it back, pay it forward or do nothing at all?
- If members of this group have gifts that they want to contribute is that okay? Some of the most marginalized people that I have encountered are the best at sharing what little they have.
- Will members of “the least of these” who have gifts to share remain members of the group if they share or if they don’t?
Where is the line between the “least of these” and not “the least of these”?
I am happy for Jesus to characterize me as the least of these because Jesus counts himself among this group. Further, if being a member of “the least of these,” is an opportunity to draw closer to him and become more like him, I am all for it. More often however, the connotation of “the least of these” is someone who is not very blessed: Someone who has less than others have, someone who has nothing to contribute, someone who is physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally weak. That is not applicable to me.
What does it really mean to be “the least of these”?
I would like to point out that while Jesus refers to people who are hungry, thirsty, sick, lonely, without clothes, without shelter or in prison Jesus makes no mention of disability here. He doesn’t even make reference to the lame, the mute, the deaf or the blind as he sometimes does to connote disability. Accounting for the standard of living experienced by many people with disabilities around the world, a large proportion might fit into the categories of hungry, thirsty, lonely, sick or in prison but I think that says more about the systems within the societies in which we live than it does about the characteristic of a disability.
This passage denotes all kinds of grounds on which we might be tempted to discriminate against, marginalize or at the very least separate ourselves from others so that we can feel good about serving them. It suggests that when we serve we are not supposed to expect gifts in return. Therefore, service can be one directional but we should not think it has to be.
This passage might be intentionally broad in recognition that at one time or another we might be on either side of serving or needing service from others. Perhaps the sheep of this passage were not a privileged group: they could have been a group humble enough to recognize that there were gifts they needed to give and gifts they needed to receive. That is me and I hope it is you too!
Jesus is imploring everyone to serve everyone else as though we were serving him, because each of us bears his image, that is true.
Jesus is effectively outlining a basic code of human rights that applies to all people, not just those with disabilities or those who are marginalized in other ways. A kingdom vision is one without hunger, thirst, sickness, loneliness or imprisonment. Rather than, wasting time trying to determine who among us belongs to what category of “the least of these”, can we work together and with God toward that vision instead?