Photo of a man feets who was begging at Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal by Humanitiarian Photographer, Bryon Lippincott. This man would be considered "the least of these" in Christian circles.

Are we helping the least of these?

“The least of these” is a short phrase that finds constant use in Christian conversations and teachings, both in person and on social media. It is a phrase I have accepted in the past as normal. I understand the context behind it and the common set of values it describes.

Matthew 25:40 NIV reads, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.”

In the broader context, Jesus is talking about caring for the less fortunate (those who are hungry or thirsty, strangers, prisoners, and the sick), and declaring that it is an essential part of living as Christians. He is also making a declaration of value.  

When we shorten this text to “the least of these.” we are taking it out of the wider context of the full sentence. Removing the context changes the nature of the phrase.

On its own, “the least of these” is a derogatory statement, a dismissive devaluing of people that implies they are less, that they are the lowest of the low. It dictates social status and is a declaration of perceived worth of human life. 

When I was younger, before social media, Christians rarely used this phrase outside of Christian spaces, limiting its use to sermons, Bible classes, and Bible studies. I now notice it frequently used on social media and articles published on the internet in Christian discussions on politics, development work, social services, and charitable giving. While I believe that this phrase’s use is not intentionally malicious or derogatory, I think we need to be more intentional when choosing our words, especially in public conversations like those that occur on social media. 

This phrase is a Christian ideograph.

An ideograph is a short, abstract summary, shared by, and taken for granted by, a particular group, culture, or society. Another way of describing an ideograph is a standard piece of language that takes on significant meaning to specific populations in reference to the collective history of that piece of language. “The least of these” is an ideograph referencing Jesus’s teachings on caring for the poor and vulnerable. As Christians, we understand this, and we subconsciously add these contextual elements  in our minds automatically when we hear the phrase. 

Does our understanding of the deeper context of the phrase excuse our use of the phrase out of context in public conversations, promotional materials, and project names?

If we go back and look at Matthew 25:40, paying specific attention to the punctuation, we can see that the entire clause containing this phrase is this, “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine .”  

“The least of these brothers and sisters of mine” is an entirely different declaration of their human value than “the least of these.” 

Removing the second half of the phrase eliminates Jesus’s declaration of their human value. It changes people from “brothers and sisters of Jesus”, to “the least of these” and thereby makes a negative value determination.

Our use of this phrase out of context, especially in the presence of people who may not know the context of Jesus’s words has the potential to be insulting and demeaning to the very people we are attempting to value through our use of this text. 

I think we need to eliminate the ideographic use of “the least of these” from our vocabulary for two reasons: 

  1. Used outside of the context of the surrounding text, it becomes a derogatory assessment of social status and perceived value. Social media and the lack of presence created by the internet have reduced our ability to perceive the impact of our words. I would hope that we would not stand in the presence of marginalized or vulnerable people and use the phrase “the least of these” to describe them. Yet, that is what we do every time we use this phrase on the internet, social media, and in public communications. By using this phrase, we unintentionally make value determinations based on a person’s perceived status within society. 
  2. Our use of this phrase changes our perception of the people we are describing. The words we use matter. Using the phrase to describe others separates our value from theirs. It raises our status and reduces theirs, placing us in a place of perceived power over them. This power we grant ourselves through status comes with a perceived duty to save them, provide assistance, or be charitable. Our use of this phrase changes us and slowly shifts our perspective of the people around us, we begin to see them as projects, charity cases, and people without agency that need us to act for them. We forget the second half of the text, we fail to remember the real statement of value in this text, “these brothers and sisters of Jesus.” 

How would our perception of social problems and people who have been marginalized or oppressed by society be different if we constantly referred to them as “these brothers and sisters of mine”?

“These brothers and sisters of mine” isn’t the ideograph we use, but maybe it should be.