Have you ever tried to finish last in a contest? For instance, maybe you were “racing” against a child, and intentionally went slowly so that the one with shorter legs could win. When students realize that they will be measured against improvement from a pre-test to a post-test for a grading period, some will intentionally miss questions on the former. Perhaps there’s a task you really don’t want to do, so when volunteers are requested, you look away and hope that someone else will step up first.
Although these probably aren’t what Jesus had in mind in the following verse, we are at least familiar with not always trying to finish first:
But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Matthew 19:30 NIV
Of course, what Jesus described here isn’t the same thing as an athlete trying to finish in last place. While there is an attitude of humility and service that Jesus taught and illustrated for us, we should do our very best at achieving it. There’s no place in the Christian walk for being lazy, nor for trying to put forth the least possible effort. Neither do we “throw the game” in the sense of using our skills to work against the direction that God gives us. Those don’t seem to be the kind of “last” that Jesus is talking about, here.
Instead, I think that Jesus here was contrasting what we see as important, valuable, or “first”, versus how His kingdom worked. Matthew had just recorded the events of little children being brought to Jesus (exemplifying those who belonged in the kingdom of heaven), and a conversation with a young man whose attachment to his wealth competed with his surrender to the better life that Jesus offered.
In the case of the little children (Matthew 19:13-15), it seems that the disciples didn’t consider these “least of these” to be worthy of taking up Jesus’ time. Some of that may have been cultural, but even today, the faith of children has much to teach us. In the case of the rich man seeking a way to get eternal life (Matthew 19:16-26), the disciples were flabbergasted when Jesus explained how difficult it was for the rich (i.e., those in “first place” in many societies) to enter the kingdom.
Given examples of Jesus’ humility and life of service, it seems that there’s no place for trying to be the most famous, wealthy, or “successful” (in worldly terms) within the body of Christ. However, I believe that Jesus’ followers should still to strive to succeed, when success means living according to His example, even when that effort costs them something in the “rat race” of the secular world.
There are races where start times are staggered, and results are measured by individual elapsed time. As a result, those who cross the finish line first might not be pronounced the winners. In some ways, follows of Jesus may seem to be in last place on earth, not because we are trying to elbow others out of first place in the kingdom of God, but because our measurement of success is different.
We should be the first to help, the first to serve, the first to love, the first to apologize, the first to reconcile, the first to be a peacemaker. But, maybe there are other places that we are still trying to get to the front of the line, insisting that others see things our way, accommodate our interests, and serve us first.
So, how can we humbly seek to be “last” for Jesus’ sake? Where can we seek to do things that are as humble as washing dirty feet, even if we aren’t recognized or even thanked for it, so that the Kingdom of God can reach more people with the joy and salvation that results from knowing Jesus?
That’s a question for all of us – including me – today.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.