Read for This Week’s Study: Luke 4:16–19; Isa. 62:1, 2; Deut. 15:11; Matt. 19:16–22; Luke 19:1–10; Job 29:12–16.
This week we have a lesson that is quite challenging, titled “Unto the least of These.” It invites us to reflect on what should be understood to be the Christian responsibility to care for those the Bible designates as “the least of these.” The least of these that are often spoken of in the Bible are those who have lost all societal place and support. In biblical days, those were commonly understood, and were identified as being, the orphans, the widows, the blind and diseased, and the strangers or aliens in the land. For whatever reasons, these people found themselves in circumstances where they had no means of supporting themselves, a situation made worse by the general attitude at the time that adversity was likely the result of sin or wrong-doing by either themselves or their parents. Disease or misfortune, then, were thought to be the just judgment of God on a person, leaving little incentive for others to help them. Those who suffered were thought to be bearing just punishment from God, hence no reason for others to intervene.
- Who would be identified today as the least of these?
- What are the prevailing opinions about the poor and about the diseased and indigent today?
In light of this, it is very interesting to bring to mind the verses from Isaiah that Jesus quoted when he stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth to announce the beginning of his ministry, the record being found in Luke 4:16-19:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NIV)
Here the work of the Messiah is explicitly focused on the restoration of what we have already identified as “the least of these.” Apparently in the economy of God, nobody should be left in adverse circumstances, at least not when the Kingdom comes.
This is but one place where we see God’s concern for the “nobodies” in society. A careful review of the laws of the Old Testament will reveal that there were to be systems in place to prevent prolonged servitude and to help sustain the poor, like the instruction to leave the corners of a field unharvested, or the instruction to leave fields fallow every seventh year, and also the limitations on how long debt could be carried. And there were ways for those who were sick to be restored and be healed, though there is no suggestion here that sickness disappeared entirely.
We should add here the admonition given by James in James 1:27 that “Religion pure and undefiled before the Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
There is one more portion of scripture that should come into play here, and it is the parable of the great and final judgement found in Matthew 25:31-46, where the nations come before God and are divided as sheep and goats. The final criteria of judgment is very interesting. The verdict hinged on how they had treated the “least of these.” Most fascinating is that the sheep, when told of their good deeds, were surprised, asking, “When did we do these things?”
And now some questions for discussion:
- What are the causes of poverty today?
- What is the best way to help the poor now?
- What are the causes of diseases today?
- How can Christians help the sick?
- Is the Christian responsibility to help negated by the presence of governmental programs designed to provide a safety net to people?
- What is the proper response to aliens, especially since there are now so many of them?
- What might individual Christians do to help with the least of these?