The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
A New Year draws on our resolve to do better. And witnessing the dawn of a new millennium, and perhaps the fresh opportunities that are spread out before us with hopes and dreams, we resolve to do much better. Much better than we have in the past.
To do much better is easier in the framing of a resolution than in the daily struggle that finds us wanting. Some things we get right. And there is a lot we get wrong. We want to do better, but it’s easier to do better at what we do right. As for the things we get wrong, it’s hard to do better. I find it that way.
Paul found it that way, too. The good that he wanted to do, he wrote, he does not do; but for the things he would not will to do, he does! It’s the nature of our being human. Perhaps you have discovered this too. It’s a discovery that helps our understanding. Certainly Jesus recognized it.
Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates the point.
We know the story. At least we know the first half of the story, that part that commends the sheep as Jesus says, "anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me."
Jesus’ point is missed entirely if the story ends there with his commendation and we think it to be good news. His commendation is not without merit and any one of us would warm to the idea that Jesus recognized the good we have done, however inconsequential.
The story is about the sheep and the goats, however, and a thorough reading demonstrates the balance and the good news that Jesus wants us to discover in the lesson. On the one hand, we have the sheep, and on the other, the goats. The sheep are commended for feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. The goats, we discover did not feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, and they are condemned.
Both the sheep and the goats, in turn, asked Jesus, "Lord, when was it that we saw you… hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink?" Matthew 25: 37 and 44.
Neither the sheep nor the goats had recognized Jesus. Had they seen Jesus, the sheep would have been quicker perhaps in their care, and certainly the goats would not have been reticent in meeting Jesus’ need. The fact of the matter is that neither the sheep nor the goats had seen Jesus. What they had seen was a need, and the sheep had responded to this need. The goats did not.
The sheep weren’t particularly good for this. They weren’t doing something to ingratiate themselves with Jesus. They were not currying God’s favour. They simply recognized a need, and did what had to be done. They did what they had to do. They did the right thing.
And the goats weren’t particularly bad for this. Their intention was not to hurt Jesus. Their defensive plea assures us and him of their favourable attitude towards Jesus. As for the need that surrounded them, they simply did not to recognize it, or, if they had, they chose to do nothing about it. For this neglect, they did the wrong thing.
A lot like Paul. And on reflection, a lot like me. And, perhaps a lot like you.
"When did we see you… ?" asked the sheep and the goats. "When did I see you… ?" I ask.
A plea for mercy based on our affection for Jesus at the neglect of others is hollow and is met with Jesus’ words challenging our resolve: "anything you did not do for one of these, however humble, you did not do for me."
In recognizing the need in others, and responding to it, we discover Jesus. An Epiphany!
Copyright © 2000 James T. Irvine
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