"In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. "Amen.

Theologian John MacQuarrie of Oxford University once said that it is important to pay

attention to the first thing that Jesus says in a Gospel. He said that the writers of a Gospel would

select a first word spoken by Jesus to represent what the Gospel is all about.

I’m intrigued by this idea. Have you ever asked yourself, “What’s the first thing Jesus

says in the Gospel of Matthew?” And having answered that, what does it mean? Or why does

Matthew place that first?

The first thing Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel is, “Let it be for now, for it is fitting that

we should fulfill all righteousness.” And on what occasion does Jesus say this? He says it at his

baptism. Like others, Jesus goes to the River Jordan and presents himself to be baptized by John,

a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John seems to object: “I need to be baptized

by you.” It is to this that Jesus says, “Let it be for now, for it is fitting that we fulfill all


That’s the reason for Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew wrote a Gospel for the church to help

the church know how it is that Jesus Christ fulfills righteousness in the life of his followers. How

is it that Jesus brings righteousness to completion in the human heart and in the life of the


Today the story from Matthew is where Jesus describes the fulfillment of

righteousness. The story begins with the appearance of the apocalyptic judge.

Time, history, and judgement now converge to reveal the fruit of righteousness –

bringing righteousness to completion in its rightful place. What the apocalyptic judge—the Son

of Man---does is to separate the righteous from the unrighteous as a shepherd separates sheep

from goats.

Why does a shepherd separate the sheep from goats? Because the Christian faith is a

matter of following Jesus, and Jesus is the shepherd of the church. The sheep and goats are

would- be followers of Jesus. Some actually follow, others go their own way. Following is a

choice. The choice to follow may even be difficult. There is nothing automatic about following

the shepherd. The choice to follow is the choosing that leads to virtue---the completion of


Those who follow are the sheep. They are at the right hand of the shepherd---his place

of honor. The good Shepherd ---King Jesus---says to the sheep, “Come, O blessed of my Father.”

The author of the Gospel of Matthew is about the fulfillment of righteousness. Jesus

telling parables is all about righteousness. How does righteousness come to completion in the

human heart? It certainly involves the receiving of grace and this parable is the forgiveness of

sins. This is what the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant tells us. In this parable, grace comes to

completion in my life when I extend to others the very grace I have received from God.

Righteousness continues as I recognize that all are welcomed into the Lord’s vineyard,

and all receive the first day’s wage without reference to the amount of time spent laboring in

the vineyard. (Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard). The welcome into the Lord’s vineyard is

without condition.

Righteousness also entails considerable responsibility. It entails saying “YES” to the

invitation to the wedding banquet of the king of heaven (Parable of the Wedding Banquet). And

having said yes, it involves discerning what constitutes appropriate conduct for the kingdom and

behaving accordingly (Parable of the Wedding Garment).

Righteousness involves preparation, discerning and doing what is required to participate

in the banquet of the kingdom (Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids). And it involves taking

responsibility to exercise some risk (Parable of the Talents).

All of that comes to fulfillment in the Parable of the Last Judgement. Righteousness

becomes compete when I take grace and forgiveness, forethought, appropriate behavior,

conscientious preparation, and blood-curdling risk and exercise my sovereign dominion to

discern who needs my love and to follow Jesus by following through on the love – clothing the

naked, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick. Righteousness becomes

complete in my life. I am judged to be following Jesus faithfully. I am living for God’s sake by

living for the sake of God’s children.

The righteous are blessed. Their righteousness is a blessing to them. Their righteousness

is also a blessing to others. Their righteousness comes to the completion as they bless others

through their service to those in need. This is the fruit of righteousness, the fruit of following

the shepherd – in time and space.

The righteous have been offering the fruit of righteousness to others. By their fruit, you

shall you shall know them. They offer food out of sheer love, the fruit of their righteousness. So

doing, they are blessing God without even realizing that this is so.

She looked up from the ornate sofa on which she customarily sat. There, in the middle

of her living room stood the angel of death. From beneath his black hood, she could see his old

yellowish-gray face. Reaching out his bony hand in her direction, he addressed the old woman:

“It is your time.”

“So much do you know!” was her answer. “You neither knocked at the door of my

house, nor are you welcome. Get out, before you become the victim of my displeasure!” Her

words were as uncompromising as they were firm. Accustomed to being merely feared, the

Angel of Death departed---for the time being.

The entire house, which she owned, was filled with riches that overwhelmed

calculation. And the presence of the Angel of Death hammered into her awareness that

her riches had sat idle, benefiting not one, and offering her little means of any real pleasure. So the

rich widow rose from the sofa to which she was ever near and resolved to make an inheritance

of her wealth.

She began by making a journey throughout her village. Her pilgrimage was shamefully

modest by most standards---a mere trip around the neighborhood. But for the widow, it was

like traveling to the four corners of the earth.

The purpose of her journey was to invite her neighbors to her home. It was the first

invitation she had ever made. And this represented the first contact that most in her village had

had with the old woman. By the time her journey was complete, no one was lacking an

invitation. Neither did anyone refuse.

The invitations were to a meal at the wealthy widow’s home. Each gathering of the

widow and neighbor consisted of three parts---a request that the neighbor share something of

his or her own story, a meal of delicious food and warm conversation, and tea, during which the

widow would give away to her neighbor a portion of her estate according to her neighbor’s


As the sun went down on the evening of the conclusion of her last gathering, the widow

sat for one last time on her sofa, which now become her death bed. There was one last knock at

the door. Before answering, the widow took a last look at the room in which she sat, which,

appropriately, had been relieved of the burden of its riches. Having so paused, she lifted

her voice and spoke her final words, “You may come in now. I am ready.”

The Angel of Death opened the door of the widow’s house and entered. This time, his

face looked much less unfriendly. “I will make your journey easy.” Ever so respectfully, and with

kindness aforethought, he received her hand.

The journey was not unlike the one she had made around her own village

neighborhood. But at its conclusion, the widow was not sure whether they had traveled for

hundreds of thousands of years over the seemingly infinite deep, or if they completed their

journey in the twinkling of an eye.

Upon their arrival, the Angel of Death led the woman into a large hall. As they entered,

the host of heaven stood. The Angel of Death led the woman down the immeasurable aisle to

the Dock of the Accused. The Angel of Death then took his place among the host.

In silence, the Judge entered the Hall of Judgement. The entire host of heaven fell to

their faces. The Judge took his place at the Bench. The entire host was seated. The Judge then

looked at the woman, who stood on the Dock of the Accused. Without diverting his eyes, the

Judge spoke: “The Messenger of the Court will hear testimony to the life of the one who stands

in judgement.”

“What testimony will you hear, O Lord?” “The testimony that was given at her funeral.

How was the woman to be remembered?”

On a Witness stand in front of the Bench lay an open book. Moving to the Witness

Stand, the Messenger of the Court turned several pages. Having found his place, the Messenger

of the Court read to all assembled the following from the Book of Life.

“On the day following the death of the accused, the people of the village gathered at

their house of worship. The service began with the singing of a hymn. This was executed with

difficulty. Many were unable to sing, for they were crying. At the conclusion of the hymn all

were seated, heads bowed. After several minutes of silence, a woman rose and spoke. “Because

of her generosity, I was able to give my children their first hot meal in weeks.”

She was followed by a man: “When she reached out to us, I was able, finally, to quit

drinking.” Another man. “Her generosity completely changed me. Before, I was such a nasty

person. Through her, something happened.”

A twelve year old boy: “My Mom took the money that the woman gave to her and

bought me a new pair of shoes. Now my feet aren’t cold, and the shoes don’t have holes in

them.” Finally, a young woman: “When she reached out to us, my husband stopped yelling at

the kids and stopped beating me. She filled him with such confidence that he has begun to

work again.”

The Messenger of the Court continued to read testimonies that lasted over an hour. He

ended with these words: “At the conclusion of the service, the congregation stood and sang the

Doxology. Everyone in the village attended the service.”

For an eternity that blanketed the Hall of Judgement, the Judge and the host of heaven

were silent. The Judge sat in contemplation with head bowed. When he finally spoke, he did not

lift his head. He addressed the woman haltingly, giving her the impression of One who had been


“To the accused of the Dock, I speak words that are treasured from the foundation of

the Created World Order. Come, O blessed, and inherit the kingdom that is prepared for you.

For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you

visited me. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was dead, and you gave of me your life.’

And now, the Judge spoke with even greater difficulty. “I have but one word to speak to

you. It is the most important word that is spoken in both heaven and earth.

It was then that the Judge lifted his head, and the woman and all the Host of Heaven

saw why he spoke with such difficulty. His eyes were filled with tears. The Judge was crying.

“Thank you. Thanks to you from the Heartbeat of God.” And then, to the Host of Heaven: “Never

has there been more gladness than belongs to Heaven and Earth on this day. Salvation is

complete in the life of this soul.”

Righteousness is complete.