The First and the Last
Who here knows from experience that life is not fair? [Show of hands.] We know this, don’t we? Life is just not fair. And I really don’t think it ever has been. But what can we do? We generally just shrug and accept it: it’s not fair.
But there was once a man who refused to just shrug off the injustices of the world. Life was not fair, but that was not okay with him. This man was a great and wise teacher, and also a prophet. Millions of people around the world are inspired by his teachings. His name was Jesus.
And Jesus stood up and spoke out and fought for fairness and for justice. In fact he said something about this which is quite curious to me. He said, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Yes: the last shall be first… and the first shall be last. [Look perplexed… let it sink in a little.]
I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this, and my guess would be that there are several meanings this might have. But I’ve got an idea of one way we might understand it. We might understand it if we can think of what it feels like to be first, and what it feels like to be last.
So, children who are up front with me: help us understand what it feels like to be first. Maybe you have had this experience, yourself, or maybe you can imagine this. How does it feel, do you think, to be first? … to be best? … to be number one? … to come out on top? … to have the most? What do these things feel like? [Take responses and repeat them to the congregation.]
Now, what about being last? What does that feel like, do you think? How does it feel to be the worst? … to be on the bottom? … to have the least? … to have hardly anything, perhaps just crumbs or nothing? What do you think that feels like? [Take responses and repeat so all can hear.]
Thank you for sharing something with us about the feelings of being first and being last. You see, I think that fairness and justice might have a chance if the people who know what it feels like to be first – because they’ve been first so much that they’re very familiar with it – if these people can come to understand what it feels like, really feels like, to be last. And I think the world might start to become a little more fair and balanced for everyone if the people who already know too well what it feels like to be last – because they are so often the last, they so often come in at the bottom and have the least – if these people can come to know what it feels like, for a change, to actually come out on top; to be first for a change.
I can imagine that if those who are usually last and those who are usually first could share the feelings in their experiences with one another, that each might begin to experience a transformation. I believe that when we can share our feelings with one another—in a way that is safe; and when we can listen to one another in trust and with compassion – that we can begin to transform one another on the inside. When these different experiences can touch, then change can occur. And when we start to be changed on the inside, we will begin to act differently in the world; we will act more and more and more for justice.
Jesus believed that a just society was possible. It would, he taught us, create heaven, right here on earth. Heaven on earth! Now isn’t that worth living for?!
This Reflection accompanied a sermon that explored the Book of Matthew, chapter 20. The statement, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last” is the final verse of this chapter. There are two notable points to make about it: 1) It occurs several other times, in other forms in the Christian Gospels. Jesus scholars agree that the statement, in some form, came essentially directly from Jesus. 2) It concludes the chapter in a very jarring way, ostensibly summarizing the essence of the parable, but in actuality being misused. In this setting, its risks confusing the reader, because at best, Jesus’ moral teachings are only implied. Scholars tend to believe the verse was added to the parable at a later time.