I’ve heard Jesus paraphrased as saying, “If you want to be first, be last.” I have thought about this and for a long time strived for it – being last so that in the Kingdom of God I could be first.
But then it hits me. The subject hasn’t changed. When we want to be first we try to be first. Then along comes Jesus and says, “If you want to be first, be last.” So, because we still want to be first, we try to be last. But the subject is still “I want to be first.”
What did Jesus actually say? Not “If you want to be first, be last.” But rather, “But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30 CEB), and then “So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16 CEB). These are not statements about motivation and attaining something. They are facts about a certain reality. In fact, in Matthew at least, these two double statements are the intro and conclusion to a parable on the kingdom of heaven.
“The kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus, “is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” (20:1) He goes on to describe this shocking experience in which workers are hired at three hour intervals throughout the day, and the lazy bums that didn’t look for work until the end got paid the same as the early birds. And what’s more, they got paid first. It’s outrageous!
Jesus wasn’t actually addressing motive. He was describing an alternate reality, a new kingdom. So the question is not do you want to be first? It’s for what kingdom do you want to live?
So, first things first. It’s time to change the subject.