Before getting too far into this post, a confession. This is not a strong suit of mine. While I possess the recommended minimum daily amount of compassion, I don't often go out of my way to act upon it outside a narrow group of family and friends. And this is also an area where God is working on me as we speak. Er, write. Take this, then, realizing that I am working through this in practice - I want the theory to be actualized in my life.
Jesus was delivering the teaching about "the least of these" to his disciples, in something of a private session. The "least of these" are, as Jesus Himself points out, the strangers, prisoners, naked, poor and sick. In other words, the less fortunate. Today these would be the homeless, the elderly, those in hospice care, the orphans, the felons. Things haven't changed since the time of the incarnation. We are to care for those who are ill, poor, imprisoned or lonely.
One thing important to note about this teaching. Jesus was telling this to His disciples. He wasn't telling this to the governmental leaders, the rich, the powerful. He was telling this to fishermen, and other common folk. We have no excuse for not doing our part. This isn't something to be left to the government, nor is it something that we can ask only of the rich.
The first century church understood this. Acts 2:45 tells how they sold "their property and possessions" to share with those in need. James wrote that religion should include visiting the lonely (1:27), and clothing and feeding the poor (2:15-16).
But why, one may ask, must we pay so much attention to the less fortunate? Cannot the government more efficiently take on the task? Can't we let the church do it? First of all, Jesus did not allow us this out. This is the key thing which He's working on in my life. (Over the past couple of years He has worked with me on contentment, and though I'm not 100% perfect in that area, I am sufficiently content with the blessings He's provided that the next step is learning how to share those blessings.) Jesus was clear that we, as individuals, are to help those who need it.
Second, the most effective way to bring people to the point where they are ready to listen to our message of Good News is to meet their physical needs. As some may rightly point out, our long-term goal should be bringing people to an eternal salvation; the eternal is more important than the temporal simply because of the scope. This makes a great deal of sense to me, sitting in my living room, typing on a laptop, watching a relatively new TV. For those with an empty stomach, too few clothes in a Minnesota winter, or wondering where their next paycheck will come from, the eternal is too far away. They aren't interested in my Lord. The fact that I'd rather talk to them than help them indicates to them that I care little for them - this is the reality of humanity. Our temporal needs very often matter more to us than our eternal state. And in a sense, this is natural. God created us to desire life, to want health, and to seek security. I'd react the same way were I in another place.
Finally, we should care for others in general because we share in God's love. As He loved us, so we love others. By loving others, we also become a conduit through which He can bring others to know Him. And we also, as Jesus says, are showing love to God Himself when we love other people. It is an act of obedience and worship to a God who loved us enough to save us from our own rebellion.
So...yes, Mr. Northernburbs, we should take care of the needy. Thanks for the obvious lecture. Does this mean the government or church shouldn't take part? No, of course not. In a society like ours, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of economies of scale in trying to help more people, more efficiently. (Idealism? Yep. I don't trust that many government agencies operate as efficiently as private charities, or individuals - but the theory is fine.) But the primary means by which the "least of these" should be cared for are through the individuals, by those who can build a relationship with the lonely, or who can feed the hungry.
I hope to continue to grow in this area. I want to share the love God has so graciously showered on me and my family. By American standards I am comfortable, but not rich. By the world's standards, I am wealthy beyond the dreams of all but a very few. I can't take "it" with me. I may as well use "it" to help bring other people with me.