Jesus says several times that the first will be last and the last will be first. He doesn’t say let’s all be equal.
He says the first will be last, and the last will be first. I want to preach the good news of equality, but that’s not what scripture says. Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5) Not, blessed are the meek, for they will share the earth with the mighty. They will inherit the earth.
It’s not only Jesus who says the first will be last and the last will be first. The theme of reversal flows through both testaments:
Can you think of more biblical reversal stories?
Luke 6:25 "Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:25 "But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.
Jesus teaches it, and Jesus lives it! Son of God, most revered rabbi, stripped, spat on, mocked, crucified, he goes from mighty to meek, and then from death he rises.
John 12: 24-25 Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Bearing fruit seems like a grand, luscious finale. But it’s also a starting over, because it is the seed for the next life, the new generation. Bearing fruit has something to do with the cycle of reversal that we find throughout scripture. A tree grows strong enough to bear fruit, it is mighty, but only after the fruit comes to earth, as meek as could be, lying on the ground waiting to rot or be eaten, only then does the seed find soil, and life continues.
I wish Jesus had just said, let the first and last join hands and become equal. But he said they would trade places. And then once the first is last, being last means becoming first. I wonder if Jesus is reflecting the genius of nature, the divine design of everything around us and within us. Because there is no equality in nature – at least not for more than a moment. What might look like equilibrium in an ecosystem is actually continuous change, even if it results in a stable ecosystem.
Science might call it dynamic equilibrium. I bet you’ve seen these shapes in your lifetime, as culture moves from conservative to liberal to conservative to liberal. The church, too. Or from rigidly organized to innovative then back to rigid then back to innovative.
Was Jesus tuning in to the reality of human, family, political, chemical, biological systems over time when he preached the first will be last and the last will be first?
Hillel the Elder was a rabbi living when Jesus lived – maybe they even met! A gentile, someone who wasn’t Jewish, told Hillel the Elder “I’ll convert to Judaism if you recite the whole Torah standing on one foot.”
Before TV entertainment came in public spaces through conversation and challenge. Remember all those stories of people taking Jesus on? The Pharisees and Sadducees often, or bystanders, challenge Jesus with tough questions – who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? This woman has had seven husbands and each died – who will she be married to in heaven? Should we pay taxes to the Empire or not?
These conversations happen in public spaces, as Jesus and his friends stand around – like kids on playgrounds or teenagers in malls or adults in coffeeshops or bars. We like public spaces where we can be with some people we know, and some people we don’t know yet. Pleasant familiarity and exciting novelty in just the right blend.
When Jesus and his friends hung out like this they met the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus but wouldn’t give away his possessions. They met the woman about to be stoned. Hillel the Elder met someone ready to convert to Judaism if he could simply recite the Torah standing on one foot. Hillel the Elder couldn’t pass up this opportunity!
He picked up his foot and said:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to another. This is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn.”
The Golden Rule shows up in every religion – but don’t take my word for it; these children can tell you.
....Some people call the negatively-phrased version the "Silver Rule" as in, not quite as precious as "Golden Rule" because it's negative: