What Happens When We Are With ‘the Least of These’

Being with ‘the least of these” is a practice that shapes whole communities into Christ’s kingdom. It starts by coming alongside hurting persons. This is something we do as a regular part of our lives as followers of Jesus. We are present to the other person and tend to the presence of Christ between us. In so doing, a space is opened where no one is over the other person, no one is an object, no one is a project.

From this space of kinship, we pray together, confess sin together, proclaim the gospel into each others’ lives, share resources as needed, reconcile, speak truth in love, encourage one another. Being with “the least of these” is the practice of opening this space of withness between us and the poor, and tending to the presence of Christ there in that space. This space is like a clearing in the middle of a forest, where something new can be planted and new things can grow. And the authority of Jesus’ reign comes rushing in by the Spirit. Being with the least of these is a practice fundamental to shaping communities in mission.

The early Christians were known for this. They walked the streets tending to and being with the poor. In the first centuries of the church this practice became regularized in the church via almsgiving. These Christians became known to the Roman authorities for the way they came alongside the poor, took them into their lives and cared for their own orphans, widows and poor. In early church history the church believed they were encountering the presence of the living Christ in the poor. It drove their existence.

The church is called to make being with the “least of these” a practice wherever the poor and hurting are found. It is a practice of community that opens up space for the presence of Christ to become visible. In these spaces we enter as people who come alongside. We come to be with. We come to discern. We come to be present. We come ready to give witness. We tend to his presence. The practice of being with the “least of these” is at the core of what it means to be God’s faithful presence in the world. It is how God changes the world.

Not a Program

Often we seek to make the poor into a program, persons we distribute resources to. Churches dedicate whole ministries to do justice and mercy as programs for the poor. They organize the ministries so people can volunteer to help. While such ministries alleviate immediate suffering, they inevitably keep the poor at a distance. They keep the poor from being a part of our lives. They prevent us from being present with the poor at our tables. In so doing, justice programs (done singularly) undercut God’s work for justice in the world. They work against the new socioeconomic order God is creating in his kingdom.

In the parable of the final judgment found in Matthew 25:31–46, the Son of Man, having returned to gather his kingdom, separates the sheep from the goats, those who inherit the kingdom from those who don’t. The sheep are welcomed into the kingdom based on the fact that they gave the Son of Man food to eat when he was hungry, a cup of water when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked and visited him in prison. Those who didn’t do these things were sent into the eternal flames (v. 41). The righteous react with “Huh? When did we do that? We have no recall?” To which the King replies, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v. 40).

Jesus seems to be making the point that the righteous are unaware they were doing anything special when they were with the hurting. It appears that being with the poor was part of their everyday life. With no pretention, no worldly power or mammon, simply out of their everyday life, these people gave food to the hungry, a cup of water to the thirsty. They were with them. They were doing things they would do naturally for any friend or relative. They were in essence with kin. This is what it means to become present to the poor in our lives.

Jesus is emphasizing the relationship of the kinship God is calling us into with the poor. Brothers is about the family relationship (like Matt. 12:49–50), being with the poor in such a way that we become family. Our relationship with the poor is not to be organized as a program at our local church. Instead, in everyday life we are to come alongside, be present to the poor in a relationship of family. In this relational space Jesus becomes especially present: “When you did these things to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me—I was there” (Matt. 25:40). Antagonisms become unwound. Resources are shared back and forth. Healing takes place. Relationships are restored. And a new world is born. This practice of being with the “least of these” is to characterize our everyday life as Christians, as Christ’s church.

Church programs to alleviate pain and suffering, and to preserve the person through suffering, are important and should not be abolished! But the church must not be deluded into thinking these programs will redeem the world. More central to the church’s life with the poor is the practice of being with the “least of these” as part of everyday life. Through history the church has made its biggest impact when it has practiced being with the poor and resisted turning the poor into a program.

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Taken from Seven Practices for the Church on Mission by David E. Fitch. ©2018 by David E. Fitch. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. IVPress.com