The First Shall Be Last

‘Hey Vicar, what do you think ‘the first shall be last’ means, I was asked recently on a visit to the CO-OP. ‘Why do you ask’, I cautiously replied! It seems there had been some discussion during the chap’s visit to the Butcher’s across the road and it had been decided to ask Fr Keith when he comes in, after all he should know! Never one to miss an opportunity, I made my way to the Butcher’s! Fortunately it was a quiet moment and so I was able to have a bit of a chat –using ‘normal’ language, I explained that coming from the Bible, the saying ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’ , means that when we get to the end of this life, those who seem to have had everything going for them, including loads of  money, will join the back of the queue when it comes to entering the Kingdom of God, while those whose life seems to have been rubbish and had a bit of a raw deal, will be  up the front! Jesus in fact used the phrase after telling the rich young man that if he is worried about getting into the Kingdom, then all he need do is sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor! Biblical exposition over, it turns out the butcher had been talking to the customer about which end of the joint he had been cutting, but that’s another story!!!

Since then I have toyed the phrase over in my mind, wondering if it really has any meaning for us today; is it really part of the Gospel I preach and proclaim in Jesus’s name? A Gospel that promises a wonderful future for all believers and especially for those whose lives have been fraught with difficulties and problems? How believable is this Gospel– is it true or is it a complete fairy tale told to make us feel good when we are down?

As I look around the local community a fair number of us learnt our lessons and grew up in the ‘school of hard knocks’ and though life has its many blessings, sometimes it can be a real struggle, and for some life is hard. Few of us come from a background of privilege and plenty, and even if we do, money isn’t always the solution. I have recently been reading a novel set in a run down seaside town; in it the Vicar tells of his disillusionment not only with life in general, but with the Gospel too. He and his small congregation, he says, ‘clinging onto a belief system that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years!’ A faith and a Gospel based on eternal truths; ‘if not’, he says, ’how else could I justify it.’ All I see’, he adds, ‘is people tailoring God to their own needs– I’m lonely, so Jesus was an outcast; I’m suffering, so he heals my pain; I’m poor so I’ll reap my reward in heaven’ - ‘how is this,’ he concludes, ‘any different from being a sun or rain…. worshipping pagan?’ Later in the novel his disillusionment is taken up by the barely managing Mum of a dysfunctional family, who, while sharing a glass of wine with the novel’s protagonist, asks ’If God is all good like they say, then why does He make things so hard for us? If it’s a test, why doesn’t He give us one we can pass?’ They struggle for an answer, seeing a world, in which, despite so much  ‘ human progress’  some aspects of life never seem to change! ’May be the only way we can change the world is to go on questioning the Universe’ the protagonist concludes, ‘in the meantime’, he says, trying to cheer up the long suffering Mum, ‘Let’s polish off the bottle!’

Indeed why is the world like it is; there are still injustices of many kinds, poverty and disease, deprivation and despair, so many people’s lives made difficult and miserable as a fairly permanent state. Yet the church still proclaims a Gospel that turns worldly things upside down, that ‘questions the Universe’. We may not have explanations for all the ills that beset us as human beings; we are all vulnerable, our lives can change in a moment, none of us knows what lies around the corner, the only certainty, death! This may all be  true, but faith tells us that how we handle life and relate to the world around us can make all the difference!

Yes the Christian Gospel is made up of eternal truths –Jesus told stories to his disciples to help them understand them; the same stories I encourage parents and grand parents to tell their children and grandchildren! An eternal reward is a tempting offer, ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first,’ but why can’t we all make more of an effort to build God’s kingdom, right here, right now and remake a society, indeed a world, in which the last will be first for a change, where there is no more homelessness, hunger or want and where the humble and meek are exulted and where those who suffer are always given comfort!

                       your friend and priest,      Father Keith