Greek: καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐρεῖ αὐτοῖς· ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων, ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε
My Translation: And the king, answering, will speak to them, Amen I say to you, whatever things y'all have done to one of the littlest of my brothers, to me y'all have done it.
KJV: And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my > brethren, ye have done it unto me.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
Update May 2013 This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.
Matthew 25 has Jesus giving his final address to his disciples before entering Jerusalem. The setting is everyone sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city. Jesus discusses the coming kingdom of God through parable and through prophecy. In this chapter we have Matthew's versions of some famous parables, such as the Ten Virgins and the Stewards. The particular "parable" that this scripture comes from is the Sheep and the Goats (cue the mental playback of Cake's "Sheep go to heaven, Goats go to hell"), which is less of a full narrative parable and more of a simple allegory. Jesus says that when he comes in his glory (remember we're dealing with an apocalyptic worldview in Matthew's gospel; the Kingdom of God is about to break forth over the world with glory) the "son of man" will assemble all nations before him and divide them just like a shepherd might divide a mixed flock of sheep and goats.
Matthew, again completely in line with his focus on Torah observance and the Jewish/Christian concerns for the poor and destitute of society, quotes Jesus as saying that the basis for this division will be the things the people have done to others: feeding the hungry and thirsty, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus says that the King (a character certainly associated with the "son of man" in verse 31, but not explicitly linked as the same character) treats the actions as though they had been done to himself. Conversely, in the next verses after the scripture mastery verse, the King says that all of the negative actions have also been done to him (not feeding the hungry and thirsty, not taking in the homeless, not clothing the naked, not visiting the sick and imprisoned) and as a result they are sent into "everlasting punishment". For Matthew's Jesus, what matters is what you do, and how well do you adhere to those aspects of the Torah that encourage beneficent activities towards the marginalized of society. The call of many Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Bible was against those of wealth who oppress the poor, the widows, and the elderly. Also, the Torah explicitly mentions that during harvest-time, allowances must be made for the poor to glean from the fields. Matthew, as a Jewish Christian, portrays a Jesus who not only says that such things matter, but that such things matter eternally and that they will have a direct effect on each individual's long-term status after the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
All of which is in rather direct opposition to earlier Pauline thought, implying again that one of the purposes of Matthew's particular viewpoint might be to promote a more Judean and pro-Torah Christian theology against existing groups of Jesus followers who had rejected the Torah as a necessary code of conduct for believers in Jesus.
Unfortunately, we will not be able to get into a full discussion of Pauline views on faith and works until near the end of the series when we hit James 2:17. At that point, we'll have a lot to say about Paul (and all of the Pauline theology that the scripture mastery list skips over) and the relationship of his writings to those of other Christians.
Finally, this verse, and the idea that actions done to others are done to Jesus, almost certainly is the inspiration for the famous scripture in the Book of Mormon given by King Benjamin in Mosiah 2:17 (also a scripture mastery scripture which we'll come to soon enough). Also, some Christian thinkers have expressed the possibility that these good and bad actions are actions done within the Christian community towards other Christians. Many Christians who do get concerned about what this verse means for salvation by faith have adopted this viewpoint to reconcile things. Also, while Matthew as a Jew would have believed that all humanity was descended from Noah and was thus family, it is much more likely that in recording Jesus as saying "the least of these my brothers" he was talking about people who were already members of the coming Kingdom of God. A similar viewpoint seems to be expressed earlier by his Jesus when instructing the Twelve in Matthew 10:40-42,
40 Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward.
In his reference to "one of these little ones" many scholars think the reference intended by Matthew is to the disciples Jesus is sending out as missionaries. So this scripture might be more about salvation being based on truly belonging to the community of Jesus followers than a statement that salvation is based on works.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
On the surface, this scripture is a wonderful call for people to act with good actions towards others as an expression of their love for God. But is also supports the idea that actions matter: in the parable, those who did bad actions are sent into "everlasting punishment". No mention of believing on the name of Jesus to be saved, no mention of grace. I think the reasons for having this scripture in the list is two reasons of equal importance: I think that the Church Education System truly wants to inspire LDS youth to be giving and kind when interacting with the rest of the world, but I also think that they want LDS youth to be equipped to use this scripture to push back when confronted by the idea of salvation by faith. The problem is that they've probably been given the false impression that salvation by faith is unbiblical and they've probably also been presented with a false straw man argument of what other Christians believe who adhere to Grace theology. But we'll cover this much more when we hit James 2:17, where this conflict and poisoning of the well before the fact is most potent.