Matthew 25:37–40 (NIV)
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “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.’

Although many, including Mother Teresa, have understood Jesus’ reference to “brothers” to include all the poor and oppressed in the world, I don’t believe that fits the context or the way that Jesus uses the term “brother” in the Gospel of Matthew.  Instead, I believe that Jesus is referring specifically to those who are his disciples and are suffering deprivation because of their service in spreading the Gospel.

A Christianity Today article by Andy Horvath argues persuasively that this is a reference to the traveling missionaries like those Jesus sent out in Matthew 10.

Parallels abound between Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 and the description of “the least of these” in chapter 25. In chapter 10, the disciples had no money, bag for food, or drink (vv. 9–10; compare to the hungry and thirsty in ch. 25). They had no extra clothing (v. 10; the naked in ch. 25), and they had no home to stay in (vv. 11–14; the strangers in ch. 25). Jesus said they would often be arrested (vv. 17–20; the prisoners in ch. 25). Even the order of these circumstances is a near match. Also recurring is the idea that one’s response to Jesus’ representatives is a response to Jesus himself: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (10:40). And the rewards language in chapter 10 is conspicuously similar, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (v. 42).

The parallels between the two passages are no accident and make a strong case that the same group is in mind. The “least of these my brothers” are the disciples, followers of Jesus who carry his message. Jesus’ “brothers” in the Gospel of Matthew are always his disciples (12:48–50; 28:10). That specific language is used of no one else.

Massacre of John Williams and Mr. Harris, 1839 – missionaries to the South Pacific
from Wikipedia

I would agree with Horvath that the itinerant missionaries of the first century would be an excellent example of the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine”.   So are believers enduring persecution for their faith in many different countries of the world.  I am reminded of Nik Ripken’s assertion in the Insanity of God and the Insanity of Obedience that the reason believers in these countries are persecuted are because they are sharing their faith, and if they simply refused to share Jesus, their persecution would also stop.  There is a direct relationship between their boldness and determination in spreading the Gospel and the amount of hardship that they are experiencing.   Jesus assures us that those who identify with and help Christ’s disciples on mission identify with Christ and His kingdom.   Those who ignore the needs of these disciples are enemies of the kingdom, even if they do not actively persecute Christ’s followers.

Although I have seen many poor believers over the 30 years that I have been a missionary, the majority of those that I have personally known were not suffering deprivation (no food, water, clothing or homes) primarily because they are believers.   Believers in the countries where we have lived have not been totally exempt from persecution, but very few have been deprived of a home and the basic essentials of life for sharing their faith. This is even less true of my fellow missionaries in my organization, who have been largely protected from such hardships by their passports, regular financial support, and health insurance. Obviously, the risks are going to rise as we move into more and more countries where missionaries of the Christian faith are not welcome.

But does the promise and warning of this parable also apply to other types of hardship and deprivation?   Could the deprivation not extend beyond the examples in the parable — lack of food, water, and clothing, homelessness, sickness, and imprisonment?  Would not any help provided to disciples of Christ who are seeking to share their faith be as if “you did it for me”? How about those missionaries experiencing loneliness or confusion or discouragement because they are in another culture and language?  Would not our help (friendship, mentoring, direction, coaching, encouragement, etc.) not also be seen as a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matt 10:42)?

So if these brothers and sisters of Jesus’ are his disciples who are sharing their faith and experiencing some type of hardship as a result, who then are the “least of these” within this group? In Jesus’ original context, it seems to me that he is referring to lower class believers (e.g. slaves, women, foreigners) who experienced the hardships of persecution even more acutely because they did not status in society or wealth or powerful friends in government to protect them. Maybe he is also referring to those who did not have the status of the more well-known apostles. In our context, at least in countries where people are not imprisoned for sharing their faith, I wonder whether we should not be thinking of our younger missionaries who are generally the most vulnerable to discouragement, confusion, and loneliness in a new culture and language. Young missionaries going out from new sending countries like Ukraine and the Philippines who do not have all the systems of support in place like those of us from North America would clearly also be in this category.

All that to say that even on the basis of these verses in Matthew, I think I can make a case for the need to mentor and support our younger missionaries. The least of our missionaries may well be the youngest and least experienced of our members. (See Matt 18:2-5.) Whatever we do for one of them we do for Christ. They are not suffering from physical deprivation, but they are often at a loss nevertheless as they struggle with all the support they have given up when they left their home countries.