Today’s continuation of the story of John the Baptist foreshadows the time when Jesus will say “the last will be first and the first last”, which is a turn of phrase we have all heard, but likely have no idea what it means. As a reminder, Jesus says “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In this instance the people who are considered less than are made whole by God, through Jesus, meaning the last have been made first. The last, the people cast aside by society are now first in the line of understanding God’s love and mercy, while the people who thought they were first, the Pharisees, the king, the Sadducees, have moved to the back of the line, because they don’t get it. Do not take this to mean that the Pharisees and company are not important or that they are some how being punished because that isn’t true, they just don’t get it. The point is that human social structure is irrelevant in the eyes of God. Human understanding, human society and culture, human hierarchies have nothing to do with the kingdom of God.
Now John truly believes in the coming of the Messiah, he believes that the kingdom is coming and he believes that Jesus is the one that will make it happen; but even he, like us, wants confirmation that Jesus is the real deal. John represents the person that gets it, the person that gets what is to come, but Matthew is also showing us that even John has his doubts. Once he receives confirmation John recedes into the background of the story and does so for two reasons. First, he understands that Jesus is the embodiment of God, the promised Messiah and that means his work is finished, as his call was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, which he did. Secondly, as John was one of the first, if not the first, person to believe that Jesus was the messiah he can and should step back from his position of prominence in the story; he should and does move to the back of the line because his role is to be one of the members of Christ’s body, not the member. You may have picked up on the idea of a cycle here, that it may be possible to go from being last to first and then immediately go back to being last and I think that is true. I also think it is important. It is important because it is about humility and without humility there cannot be love.
If you are like me you assume that when Jesus speaks of the last being first etc. he was talking about the social, political, and economic structure of society, but he isn’t, and no matter how much we want to pretend that he is calling us to fix our society the truth is that God is not concerned with how we structure our collective lives beyond our ability to love one another. So, if we make adjustments in the name of justice that is absolutely wonderful and something that we need to do, but that is not what John the Baptist, Isaiah, or any of the prophets were pointing to. Did they think that when the messiah came that all that was wrong with the world would be swept away? They likely did, but it wasn’t. Jesus did not spend his ministry recreating the universe, he instead gave us the tools necessary to realize that so much more than we could ever imagine is not only possible but will one day come to fruition.
If we look closely at human history, and I have, we will see that despite our technology and advancements in understanding, human society has not actually changed all that much. We think it has, but most of the changes, which have come about in the name of progress, have simply replaced one form of oppression with another and in some cases the people who were last have taken steps towards being first, which makes the people who are first feel really uncomfortable. Here’s the thing though. While the trend of human history bends towards justice, towards progress, towards equality, we run the risk of believing that we have control of the development of God’s kingdom, which is not only untrue, but also entirely contrary to the teachings of Christ Jesus because the teachings of Jesus point us to playing a role in the development of God’s kingdom on earth, not controlling the process.
As we strive to protect creation, to ensure that no one is hungry or homeless, to end the plague of war, to end the subjugation of women; as we strive to end the exploitation of low wage workers and so many other things that plague our society we must remember that while this work may be inspired by and even in line with the teachings of Jesus, it is only a portion of what Jesus taught.
When we take pieces of scripture, like today’s passage from Matthew, out of context it is easy to come to the conclusion that the teachings of Jesus are the key to solving the world’s problems, and in many ways they are, but only if we are prepared to practice radical love here and now and a part of that radical love is the humility it takes to give up your first place position and go to the back of line. When we make progress as people of faith, when we are healed in body and spirit, when our belief is strengthened then it is time for us to step aside and allow others to grow in faith, or better yet help others to grow in faith.
Becoming last is a good thing, it means that we get it, but with understanding comes responsibility because we can easily run the risk of thinking that because we get it, we are in control and our job is done, but it isn’t it is just beginning. So, when the first become last it means that we need take what we have learned and put it into action, and as our work moves us towards the head of the line again we can put what we learned about radical love into practice, and help some other people get to the front of the line, so when we choose to go to the end again, like John the Baptist did, we won’t be there alone.
You see, as is true with everything in scripture, there are layers of meaning to what Jesus tells us. On the one hand “the last will be first and the first last” means that our social structure will be turned upside down and through us God’s radical love is slowly doing that. On the other hand it is telling us that our faith will be turned upside down, that everything we think we know is only a tiny portion of what God is and does; both are true, both are necessary, and the sooner we understand both of those layers the sooner we will be ready for the one we haven’t learned yet.