Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
On Tuesday as we gathered on line for morning prayer, we heard this:
from Isaiah 44 – I am the first and I am the last. Do not fear, for I am with you. (Sounds of the Eternal, JP Newell p.75)
Morning prayer ended but this phrase stayed with me. And reminded me of the enigmatic quote from Jesus, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
I began wondering how these two phrases are connected, I am the first and I am the last, if they are connected – The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Is it just a happy coincidence of English translation that Second Isaiah and the synoptic gospels have these first and last things going on? I don’t know Hebrew or Greek so I can’t do a proper text study like a good seminarian ought.
But I want to explore these texts today anyway and see if we can make any connections between Second Isaiah and the gospel writers, between the words of God and Jesus. And, in the tradition of the rabbis, there may be more questions than answers, more wondering than declaring.
We have spoken the text from Second Isaiah numerous times this morning: “I am the first and I am the last.” Jesus takes these same words – first and last – and turns it all on its head: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” In a capitalistic society where being first is everything, it is hard to wrap the mind around what this could possibly mean. How can it be fair at all for the last to be first? We are so committed to being first, to being first not just one time but multiple times, every time. We want to be winners, not last, not losers. But what if Jesus isn’t about winners and losers?
“The first will be last and the last will be first.” These puzzling words of Jesus appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The situations are not quite the same, the parables are each a bit different. What is it with this phrase? Something that Jesus likes to use when things get tricky, when the answer is not easily explained, when he isn’t sure what else to say? “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
Could Jesus, as he frequently does, be quoting the law and the prophets with his own twist? Is he referring back to Isaiah, God is the first and the last. This was a word of comfort (and challenge) to the people when they were in the Babylonian exile, when everything was unpredictable and the cultural rules had changed, when their understanding of God was probably changing. Isaiah gives them this way to understand God: God is the first and God is the last, (and perhaps by extension everything in between.) The writer of Revelation expands this when the people were once again living in terror times in the Roman empire: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, (the beginning and the end) who is, who was and who is to come.”
Let’s look at the passage from Mark again. We didn’t hear the whole long passage so let me set the scene. An eager person comes anxiously to Jesus to ask a question: Good Teacher, What must I do to share in “everlasting life.” I can sort of imagine Jesus being a bit frustrated. Here they are, the well-dressed, well-read, well-fed person who is looking out for themselves. Are they trying to butter him up by calling him “Good Teacher?” Jesus says, ‘Enough with the Good Teacher stuff. God is good. You know what to do, keep the commandments.’ And Jesus names some of the ten commandments: no killing, no adultery, no stealing, no bearing false witness, no defrauding. Honor your parents.
Feeling reassured the person says, “Oh, I already do all that. I have done, my whole life” Jesus says, “Well then, next level. Go sell what you have and give it to people that need it. Then you will have treasure in heaven. After you have done that, come follow me.”
The person is deflated. They are rich, they have a. lot. of. stuff. What Jesus is asking is impossible. They walk away sadly because what Jesus is asking is out of the question. Ridiculous. So much hyperbole.
Then Jesus makes this strange speech that we heard about how hard it is for mere mortals. How people will have to leave everything they love, the family members they love, and their land – and all that they leave they will gain again, a hundred times over. It sounds a bit like Job, where he loses everything. And it sounds like Job because Jesus says it will “not be without persecution.” And it sounds like Job because in the end it is all replaced many times over – plus Jesus says in the age to come you get everlasting life. “Many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.” (Makes total sense now, right?)
It might be hard for those of us who have a lot of stuff, like the person looking for everlasting life, it might be hard for us to hear this as good news. But for people who are struggling, who are just scraping by, this is great news. Things will be evened out. First will be last, last will be first. Everlasting life for everyone.
In Luke this first and last phrase appears when Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, teaching as he goes. A person approaches asking, “Will only a few people be saved?”
We might think about other stories we know from the gospels and notice that people who seek out Jesus for healing – for themselves or others – don’t start with these kinds of questions. When you need healing just to survive in this world, just to make it another day, salvation and everlasting life, might not be top of the mind, at least that is how it is told in the gospels. It seems like it is the people who have their needs met, that are doing better than fine, who need one more box to check, one more way to get ahead, these are the ones who come to Jesus with these questions about the “age to come,” questions about who will be saved, and who gets eternal life.
In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Knock and the door will be opened.” But here in Luke when the person says, “Will only a few people be saved?” Jesus turns this on its head. In fact, Jesus gets upset and tells this parable. “Try to enter through the narrow door. Go ahead and knock but you might not get in. Many will think that they ought to be let in, that they have some personal connection with the homeowner; that eating and drinking together or watching from a distance as the teacher teaches in the neighborhood, they will think that gives them special access to get in that door. But instead you will be on the outside and you will hear, ‘I don’t even know your neighborhood. Get out of here.’”
This whole narrow door thing, with the wailing and grinding of teeth, it has been used to scare people, good people. Actually I think that is what Jesus is doing here, scaring a good person, a person who thinks they are good, sort of like in Mark with the person that follows all the commandments. Jesus loses patience with these self-righteous people that know the commandments, that know how they ought to live, that think they have some special connection to God and yet don’t really care about their neighbors. “Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last.”
There is a small difference in the phrases between Mark and Luke, I don’t know if it is meaningful. Mark’s Jesus says: Many who are first will be last and the last will be first. Luke’s Jesus says, Some who are last will be first and some who are first will be last. Some and many. Does it matter?
What does seem meaningful to me is how Jesus uses this phrase about the first and last to catch people off guard, maybe even throw them off balance a bit. Jesus uses it on people who are more focused on themselves than on others. He uses it with people who are more concerned about tomorrow than today. Jesus speaks this to people that already have what they need in this life and are trying to accumulate what they can for the next life. Jesus says, they are first right now but later they will be last. (Does it really matter if you are first or last?)
We didn’t hear it today but you may remember the gospel of Matthew’s version of first and last (in chapter 20.) Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who needs workers and so hires people early in the morning and at noon and at 3 and an hour before the the work day is over. At the end of the day all the workers get paid – the same amount – with the latest workers getting paid first and the earliest workers getting paid last. The early hires are incensed but the owner says, Look, I paid you the promised wage. I promised everyone the same wage and I paid it. “Thus the first will be last and the last will be first.”
It is almost like Jesus uses this phrase to shut down the entitled, or at least to stop them in their tracks. It is frustrating to those of us who imagine we are special, exceptional even, because of how well we live. In actuality, much of life is just chance. How is it that I was born to educated parents who made sure I also got a good education? How is it that I was born in a country where the color of my skin makes my life easier? How is it that I was able to find a house to buy? I did not earn this. Am I first? Am I last?
When one is used to being on top, being first seems almost ordinary. When one follows the rules, in fact knows how to interpret all the rules to ones own advantage, being first is essential. When one makes the rules to keep oneself in power, being first is absolute, the only thing. With that much firstness, one might even be tempted to think one is God, the first and the last.
But Jesus has a different way of looking at things. He says, first, last, whatever. God’s accounting is all God’s own. God is first and God is last. And in between, people will come from everywhere. All are welcome. If you want to stay first, go ahead, go do your first thing but everyone is part of the Reign of God eventually, first and last, east, west, north, south. There is enough room for everyone. Jesus says, You can remove yourself; you can choose not to listen to the prophets. You can decide to follow the letter of the law and ignore your neighbors. But there is plenty of room for those who are first and for those who are last. And for all those in between. I wonder where that leaves us?
People will come from East and West, from the North and South,
and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.
Some who are last will be first,
and some who are first will be last.