With the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons approaching, our churches and Christian relief organizations soon will be encouraging us to have a charitable and giving spirit toward the poor. This is good. But may I suggest that care should be taken so the breadth of our compassion is neither too broad on the one hand nor too narrow on the other.

How can it be too broad? Many Christians use Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 as the basis for exhorting the church to care for society’s downtrodden. Yet, picking up the text in verse 37, we read (emphasis added):

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, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

To say this parable refers to all of the world’s poor, both Christians and non-Christians alike, is to inappropriately broaden it far beyond its scope. Throughout the New Testament, the primary usage of the word “brothers” is in reference to Christians. The secondary use is to refer to fellow Jews. Nowhere can I find it ever used to refer to humankind in general. Also consider:

  • Matthew had earlier taught who the “brothers” of Jesus were. “‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12).
  • Paul had a similar view as to who are God’s children and Jesus’ brothers: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship…. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8).
  • In Hebrews 2, the writer has this to say on the subject of sonship: “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
  • There are many verses that specifically tell us to give priority to the needs of believers in Christ versus those of society in general. Among others, they include: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…. Share with God’s people who are in need” (Romans 12). “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2).
  • We apparently will be rewarded in the next life for acts of mercy and charity we demonstrate in this one. However, the promise applies not to indiscriminate benevolence but to acts of kindness rendered to a specific group of people: “I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward” (Mark 9).

In Matthew 25, Jesus is not arguing for humanitarian efforts in the community at large. He is saying that love for the body of Christ is evidence that we know Him. Am I saying that we are not to assist the poor who do not share our faith?

Of course not. In fact, I am arguing for demonstrating greater compassion for them, not less. I am suggesting that while our benevolence should include their material needs, it should lovingly be paired with the gospel. Should we not provide them food for their souls, which are eternal, as well as for their earthly bodies which are, after all, only temporal?

Let our teachers exhort us from John 6 rather than Matthew 25:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry…. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”