The first will be last

This past weekend, I preached on the story from Matthew 19:16-30 of the rich young ruler who ran up to Jesus to ask what good thing he needed to do to have eternal life, or in other words, to get in on the ground floor of the messianic age that Jesus was bringing.  I’ve written about the passage in an earlier post, so some of what was said this weekend can be found there.  Here, I want to focus on the punchline of the passage: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt 19:30, NIV).  What does Jesus mean by this?

The way Matthew tells it, Jesus must have thought it was a pretty important lesson, because in one form or another, we hear it over and over.  First, it’s how the story of the rich young ruler ends.  Next, with a little changeup in the word order, it’s the punchline of the parable Jesus tells immediately afterward.  Soon after that, when the mother of James and John asks Jesus to grant her boys places of honor in the coming kingdom, Jesus tells the disciples, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:26-28, NIV).

All of that, moreover, is sandwiched between two short but similar stories of surprise.  On the front end of the story of the rich young ruler, people bring children to Jesus for his blessing, and the disciples rebuke them.  Jesus chastises the disciples for doing this, receives the children, and gently lays his hands on them (Matt 19:13-15).  At the back end of the story of the sons of Zebedee, two blind men call out to Jesus from the side of the road, begging for his healing mercy.  This time, it’s the crowds that do the rebuking.  But again, Jesus’ response is to call for them, and to reach out with a compassionate and healing touch (Matt 20:29-34).

And all of that comes just before Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds go crazy acclaiming Jesus as their long-awaited king.

Is Matthew trying to tell us something?

In the events that follow Palm Sunday, it will become clearer and clearer that Jesus is not going to be the kind of king the people expect.  So here, in the days leading up to his entry into the city of David, it seems that Jesus wants the disciples to fully and finally understand what the kingdom is really all about.

The first will be last.  The last will be first.  Expect the values and priorities of the kingdom to turn what you’ve learned from the world inside-out: it’s not about personal power, significance, or success.  It’s not about striving to be the one that others will serve, but being the one who serves others.  Children and blind men aren’t usually worth a king’s trouble.  But this king seems to think differently.

The first will be last.  The last will be first.  The statements are two sides of the same coin, a warning welded to a promise.  The warning is embodied in the sad story of the rich young ruler, who wanted the kingdom, but only on his own religious terms.  Many who think they’re at the top of the heap will find out, to their surprise and the surprise of others, that when it comes to the kingdom of heaven, they’re on the bottom.

The promise is embodied in Jesus’ embrace of children and blind men, and in his gracious response to the disciples’ sputtering question: “But Jesus, if that guy isn’t getting into the kingdom, then what chance do we have?”  Many who are last will be first: “Gentlemen, you’re measuring yourselves on the same scale of religious success that the rich young ruler was.  But that’s not how the kingdom works.”

It’s interesting that both the rich young ruler and the disciples come to Jesus with similar concerns: they want to know their eternal destiny.  In fact, they don’t just want to know, they want to lock it down.

And we could read the story as giving just such religious advice.  On the one hand, Jesus invites the rich man to sell all of his possessions and follow him, and the young man refuses.  On the other hand, the disciples have already given up everything to follow Jesus, and will be justly rewarded.  The moral of the story: don’t be like the materialistic rich guy, be like the disciples, and your future will be secure.

But surely that’s not the point.

Jesus’ primary concern is not the rich man’s eternal security, nor that of the disciples.  He accepts that this is their concern, which is why he responds graciously to their questions in both cases.

His mission, however, is the establishment of God’s kingdom and rule.  He invited the Twelve into that kingdom, and they accepted, even if they still don’t understand what that means.  He invited the rich man, and was refused.  And in essence, he will soon invite all of Jerusalem and be refused there as well.  That refusal will cost him his earthly life.

And…he continues to invite us.  It’s not simply a matter of our future, but of our present.  It’s not just whether we’ve prayed to receive Jesus at some point in the past, but whether we are following him now, this day.

The question is whether our earthly treasure is getting in the way.  What are the things, people, or ideas to which we cling that shore up our sense of significance, security, or control?  What do we grasp so tightly that God would have to pry our fingers open to place a gift into our hands, even one for which we’ve prayed?

The alternative would be to open our hands freely, to let go of some of the things that have a hold on us, so that we can receive what God has to give.  Because that’s when we discover what God’s kingdom is really about.

That’s when we begin to realize where the real riches lay.