READ : Matthew 19:30
Every day we are bombarded with messages about what to buy, what to think about, whom to admire, but the message of Jesus is that the world’s ideas about winners and losers, success and failure, are not the same as God’s ideas.
Jesus often said things that are not obvious to understand or easy to accept. We call these the hard sayings. There is one hard saying that Jesus stated over and over again. In fact, he used it so often you could almost think of it as his summary judgment upon all of life. Here it is in Matthew 19:30:
But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
And here it is again in the opposite order from Luke 13:30:
And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
Jesus is expressing in this statement a basic principle that we might call “the Great Reversal.” He’s not simply making an observation about the way things sometimes turn out in life. At first glance this great reversal sounds a little bit like Aesop’s famous story of the tortoise and the hare; you know, the one about “slow and steady wins the race.” There are often upsets in human contests, producing both unexpected winners and unlooked-for losers. Form does not always hold. Jackrabbits don’t always beat plodders. Teams that look more powerful on paper don’t always dominate. That’s why they play the games, as the sportscasters like to say.
It doesn’t take Jesus to tell us that. This isn’t a hard saying. It’s something we all recognize to be true. What Jesus is talking about is a far more profound truth, one that we have difficulty both recognizing and believing. Jesus isn’t talking here about the way life often turns out. He’s not offering the commonsense lesson that hard work and stick-to-it-iveness are more important than mere talent.
What Jesus is doing is revealing to us a truth about the mind of God. He is pointing to a deeper reality that is outside our world altogether, in fact, that stands over our world and passes judgment upon it. He is telling us here what God thinks of our standards of success, our assessments of who life’s winners and losers are. He is suggesting to us how God will ultimately judge all human value systems, and reverse all human estimates of what is important, and redefine what it means to finish first or last. Jesus is talking here about salvation, about the ultimate winning or losing. Both the Matthew and Luke texts I quoted a moment ago come in the context of questions having to do with eternal life: who has it, how does one receive it?
The Rich Young Ruler
In Matthew 19 Jesus’ statement of the principle of the great reversal is appended to his encounter with the man we call “the rich young ruler.” I think maybe in contemporary terms he would have been a successful young businessman, an upwardly mobile professional person, perhaps an up-and-coming politician. The young man is a very appealing figure in many ways; in fact, one of the gospel accounts says explicitly that when Jesus looked at this man he loved him.
This man seemingly had it all. He had position and prestige. In fact, the word ruler in the Gospel’s description of him is a title that indicates membership in the upper class. He also had wealth, great wealth, in fact. And the man had good character. His claim to have kept all the commandments was probably true, at least in a superficial sense. So the rich young ruler combined attractiveness, wealth, and status along with moral integrity.
And on top of all that, the man seems to have been very serious-minded and religious. He came earnestly to Jesus with the ultimate personal question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Just looking at the man, one would assume he already had it. If ever there was a clear-cut winner in life, surely it was a person like him.
But that wasn’t the case. To receive the kingdom of God you must be willing to be given it, like a child, not earn it like a self-confident high-achiever. To inherit eternal life you have to give up everything in which your trust is placed, surrender all your status symbols, renounce all of the trophies that mark you out as one of the world’s winners, and cast yourself in absolute dependence upon Christ. Jesus once told his followers that the door into the kingdom of God was narrow and the way to heaven was hard.
He meant that we have to give up all the baggage we’re lugging around and stoop low to enter through that narrow gate. If there is anything more dear to us than Jesus himself, we simply can’t follow him. So Jesus put it to the man straight:
Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come along with me.”
It turns out the rich young ruler couldn’t do that. There was something that this man loved more than Christ, something he wanted more than eternal life, something he did not feel he could leave behind in order to follow Jesus. And it was his money. Jesus told the man he had to give it up; but he couldn’t do it??”or wouldn’t do it. So he left in sorrow.
“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That was Jesus’ sad comment on the whole encounter, and that statement completely shocked those around him because they all believed that wealth was an indication of God’s approval, that someone as outwardly favored as the rich young man must be particularly blessed. But it isn’t so.
God looks with favor upon the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things; the proud he scatters, the mighty he brings down from their thrones, and the rich he sends empty away (cf. Luke 1:51-53). The first are last, and the last first. That’s a hard truth for most of us to grasp, but I can’t think of any that is more important.
Let me suggest what I think are a couple of valuable lessons that we ought to take away from the principle of the Great Reversal. The first one is a lesson for everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike. Jesus is inviting us here to think clearly about life and what is most important in it. So much of what we see and hear in our culture bombards us with the notion that life is all about winning, finishing first, reaching the top, making more, having more, spending more. “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” Vince Lombardi once famously declared. And we wonder why sports are filled with athletes who cheat by taking banned drugs to gain an unfair competitive advantage.
That same attitude spills over into other areas of life too: do whatever it takes, just win. People all around are scrambling to make money, to get ahead, to outdo their neighbors. “He who dies with the most toys wins,” proclaims the bumper sticker. We call that the American Dream, but Jesus thinks it’s more like a nightmare.
He is warning us against a profound mistake, that of thinking that life is limited to this world. But real life is in the world to come; that’s where achieving victory really matters. Real winning isn’t about finishing first here, however you choose to define that. It’s about salvation. People who devote all their effort to coming out ahead in the categories the world values are like a swimmer who expends all his energy trying to win a preliminary heat, and has nothing left for the actual race. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a winner; the question is, which race are you trying to win?
Jesus’ Reversal also suggests another lesson, this one for committed Christians. It suggests to us that we ought to cultivate a humility about our own status, achievements, and importance. I mentioned that Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19 comes right after the story of the rich young ruler. But there is another brief interlude between that story and Jesus’ word about the last and the first.
His disciples were astonished at his comment that wealth is an impediment to entering God’s kingdom. They concluded that then it must be impossible for anyone to enter, but Jesus reminds them that God can do the impossible (Matthew 19:26). Then Peter ??” it would be Peter ??” blurts out, “Look, we’ve left everything for you. So what are we going to get?” (v. 27). Jesus doesn’t deny that there will be rewards, including blessings in this life, for those who have left all to follow him. But his Great Reversal checks any tendency we might have toward feeling proud of ourselves for doing that.
The biggest danger for believers is the temptation to phariseeism. You remember the Pharisee in the Temple in Jesus’ story, the man who stood up and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, like that tax-collector over there, for example.” Evangelical Christians can fall into the identical trap. “I’m so glad I’m not a secular humanist, or an abortion provider. God, I thank you that I’m not like those materialists who devote themselves to conspicuous consumption. I go to church every Sunday, and I give a full tithe of my income. That makes me one of the true winners, doesn’t it? I’m going to finish first in the world to come, aren’t I?”
I don’t want to catch myself starting to think that way, do you? Since Jesus warns us very clearly about the surprising upside down reversals that are going to be made known on the day of judgment, I want to be careful to stay low, to keep humble, to not claim too much for myself or presume too much about myself. Then perhaps God, in his mercy, will bring me home a winner.