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:
- Younger brothers taking the first-born’s inheritance: Jacob gets Esau’s blessing by wearing goat hair on his arms and cooking like Esau.
- Jacob has twelve sons and favors the youngest over the oldest. One of his sons Joseph is the center of Jacob’s affection, then his brothers sell him into slavery, then as he’s earning some respect as a servant he plunges into deeper depths – prison – and from prison rises to the highest heights of his life – Pharaoh’s second-in-command. His status is reversed, and reversed, and reversed.
Can you think of more biblical reversal stories?
- Small David and giant Goliath.
- Moses nearly dies as a undocumented imported slave baby and then grows up in Pharaoh’s house, and from there stoops to murder, and from there rises to liberation coordinator. Moses, like Jacob’s son Joseph, has enough status changes that really his life looks like a cycle to me, from lowly to powerful to despair to hope to weakness to strength.
- Esther’s story is similar, she grows up a minority without citizenship and ends up one of the king’s wives. From that high status she risks her life to save her people.
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?
Can you see the cycle shape in the graph? The mighty are brought down, they become humble. The humble are raised, they become mighty. The mighty are brought down, they become humble.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t relish the image of God sending anyone away empty – no matter how smug or self-satisfied they are. But the cycle of first to last to first to last may be the rhythm of our world. And maybe God sending someone away empty is an expression of equity, rather than equality.....
God’s creativity is boundless, and our place within this creation is beloved. However meek or mighty you are today, however weak or strong you are in this season of life, may you feel the blessing of God’s love and know that you have a purpose in this divine design.