The “least of these” is a phrase that originates from Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus speaks of those in need. Verses 35–40 read,
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
The “least of these” refers to those in a variety of needy situations. They include the hungry, thirsty, impoverished, sick, and imprisoned. In this context, Jesus is speaking to those on His right, that is, the righteous. The needy are called Christ’s “brothers”; thus, the reference is to the righteous helping fellow disciples. Jesus said that those who cared for such individuals were not merely serving other people. They were serving Him.
In the same passage, the opposite is also noted. The narrative concludes with Jesus condemning those who saw believers in need and yet did not help. He says,
“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.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Jesus connected service to the needy with eternal rewards and punishments. Though salvation is by faith alone apart from good deeds (Ephesians 2:8–9), the redeemed will be “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14), including extending charity to fellow believers in difficult situations. Those whose lives are marked by apathy toward the needy show they have not been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.
God has always shown a special concern for the poor and needy (Psalm 35:10). It should come as no surprise that He expects His followers to do the same, especially toward those of the family of God (Galatians 6:10). What is surprising about the “least of these” is that our service is ultimately not to the poor, but to Christ Himself.