“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matt. 25:41-43).
These verses are getting tossed around a lot lately in light of the recent refugee situation, and until now, I did not like it. Let me explain why.
Most of the time, I see these verses getting used haphazardly as some prop for generic humanitarian relief. The “least of these” happens to be whomever people want to make it. Sometimes it is Muslims fleeing Syria. Other times it is homeless veterans. And even other times, it is politicized and wedded to public policy statements by well-meaning Christians.
But that is not how Jesus used it when he said it.
If you read the passage that contains these words, Jesus is describing a coming judgement, one where there will be righteous people and unrighteous people. To each group, one on his right and one on his left, he issues this basic statement. Those found righteous had extended mercy to this “least of these” and those found in condemnation had refused mercy to this “least of these.” However, Jesus identifies the “least of these.” It is not whichever group you would like to assign to it.
Jesus says, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Jesus is referring specifically to Christians in distress. This is a statement about believers who are struggling. In the passage some are hungry. Some are foreigners who need to be welcomed. Some have no clothes. Some are sick. But they are all brothers. In this passage, Jesus commanded his followers to love his other followers, even when they are strangers.
This is a statement about the church. The church is so closely tied to Jesus that he can claim ignoring his church is the same as ignoring him. Refusing brothers who belong to Christ’s church is the same as refusing him. Let that sit for a minute.
Yesterday, at the GC2 Summit, David Platt did an excellent job pointing out the significance of this passage in light of contemporary events. Afterward, leaders from WorldVision and World Relief did well to point out that many, if not most, of the people coming here as refugees are doing so because they are part of the persecuted church around the world. They come here hungry. Many come here sick. They come here needing clothes. They certainly come here as strangers. But, they come here as brothers.
We have an obligation to these suffering Christians, and it comes from a command given off the lips of Jesus himself.
Let me be clear. I am not advocating that we only help Syrian Christians. Statements about only letting Christian refugees come here or banning all Muslim immigration keep rising to the surface in the American rhetoric. Not only is that impossible (to bar someone on a belief instead of nationality), it is absolutely un-American, and I would hold un-Christian as well.
To the contrary, I devote most of my time on this blog to showing churches how they can reach out to their Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist neighbors from other countries. That is the drum I bang on this website, to reach the unreached peoples coming here. Yes, that includes Muslim refugees. And yes, I believe we should love these new neighbors as much as we love ourselves. After all, that is a command of Christ as well.
However, in the midst of all this talk, I think I lost sight of our responsibility to those who already stand beneath the cross. I see lost people streaming in to our country, and I want desperately to see the American church take up the message of mercy found in the gospel and take it to these people. We need to do that, but let us not forget the words of Christ concerning his own brothers.
Let us not be caught refusing Christ Jesus because we are too scared to help his persecuted church.
If you are interested in more of the developments after the GC2 Summit, you can go to their website. Notice the Evangelical statement crafted in response to refugee crisis. Consider signing it, and consider having your church do something about it. Photo By Michał Huniewicz