Who are “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40?

Many people today emphasize the importance of caring for the poor by reminding us that Jesus warned us we would be judged by how we treat “the least of these” Jesus’ brothers (25:40, 45).  Elsewhere in the Bible, how we treat the poor does speak of how we treat the Lord (Prov 19:17: one who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord). The question is whether this is the meaning in this passage. While it is true that God will judge us according to how we treat the poor, is the “poor” what Jesus means here by his “brothers”?  Will the nations be judged (25:32) only for this?  The immediate context does not settle the issue, but the broader context of the Gospel tradition may help more.  What does Jesus mean elsewhere by “brothers” and by the “least”?

Because ancient readers would unwind a scroll from the beginning, the first readers would have already read the preceding chapters before coming to Matthew 25.  Thus they would know that Jesus’ brothers and sisters included all those who did his will (Matt 12:48-50), that all Jesus’ disciples are brothers and sisters (23:8), and, before they finished the Gospel, would know that Jesus’ disciples remained his brothers after his resurrection (28:10).  (Because of the way the Greek language works, “brothers” often can include “sisters” as well, but in 28:10 the women disciples are addressing specifically the men disciples.)  When Jesus speaks of the “least” in the kingdom, he sometimes also refers to some disciples (11:11).

Who then are the least of these disciples of Jesus that the nations accepted or rejected?  It is at least possible that these are messengers of the gospel, “missionaries,” who bring the gospel to all unreached people groups before the day of judgment; certainly the message about the kingdom would be spread among all those people groups before the kingdom would come (24:14).  These messengers might be hungry and thirsty because of the comforts they sacrificed to bring others the gospel; they might be imprisoned because of persecution; they might even be worn down to sickness by their efforts (like Epaphroditus in Phil 2:27-30).  But those who received such messengers would receive Jesus who sent them, even if all they had to give them was a cup of cold water to drink–as Jesus had taught earlier (10:11-14, 40-42).  It is possible, then, in light of the entire Gospel of Matthew, that these “least brothers and sisters” are the lowliest of the missionaries sent to the nations; the nations will be judged according to how they respond to Jesus’ emissaries.