January 1, 2012
Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle
Let’s set the stage for Jesus’ last teaching (according to Matthew). The day before, Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem in what today might be considered a dramatic stunt, riding two donkeys with crowds praising him. He immediately bolts into action by overturning the money changers’ tables. He heals a few people before retiring to Bethany for the night. The next morning, Jesus returns to the temple for a pretty rough day. The chief priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees challenge him all day. As he leaves the temple that evening, he goes to the Mount of Olives and sits privately with his disciples and offers several teachings. The story of the sheep and goats was the last of those teachings before the plot to arrest him, Judas’ betrayal, and the last supper.
On the face of it, Jesus seems to be teaching a pretty clear message of, “You’re either with me or you’re against me.” “You’re either a sheep or a goat.” “You either get eternal punishment or eternal life.” But let’s look at this final teaching in context. Jesus knows he is about to become a martyr. He knows that his life is about to end. His teaching has come to a climax and ends as it began in the Sermon on the Mount, thinking about how we care for the least among us.
The author of Matthew does an ingenious thing here. After this last teaching about how we help others and how we fall short, he then tells two stories of “you did for me” and “you did not do for me” to bring home the point. First, is the women anointing Jesus with expensive oils. The second is Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
I find this to be a powerful message for the New Year. I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s:
What we call a beginning is often the end
and to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
The end of Jesus’ life was a new beginning—a starting point. The beginning of his life, which we have been celebrating this week and last was an end. All of us are sheep at times and all of us can be goats. Even Jesus faltered occasionally.
May we find the grace to recognize our brothers and sisters in need, and the courage to feed and house and cloth and comfort them. May we forgive ourselves and others who fail to notice, who fail to help the least among us. With the blessing of new beginnings, and endings, we pray.