No one begins by saying, “And lastly…” We start with, “First and foremost,” make our way to secondly, and then through the numbers. We might finally get to ‘Last, but not least.” However, none of us begins with, “And lastly…” None, that is, except for the Lord. “Start with the last arrivals,” said the landowner in Jesus’ parable, “and end with the first.” When it comes to the order of things in God’s kingdom it is the last who are first; and the first, last.
Who are these ‘last’ who come first in the reckoning of Jesus? We could all readily think here of the various ‘blesseds’ that Matthew speaks of elsewhere in his gospel: Blessed are the poor (in spirit) and those who hunger for what is right. Blessed are those who mourn, or are meek, or the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers and the pure in heart. Blessed are those who are persecuted. We might also add to this list of the ‘last’ some of those who receive special Godly attention: the widow and orphan, the sick and disabled, and so on.
But I wonder to what extent we might have on our list of ‘the last who are first’ those prostitutes and tax collectors and other sinners Jesus couldn’t help himself hanging around? Or the Zacchaeuses and Judases of the world? I wonder if, at the time when he first met them, we would be like Jesus and reach out to Mary of Magdala with her seven evil spirits or the woman at the well who was despised by her own people? The last, in the order of God’s Kingdom, are not just the deserving poor, but also the undeserving.
This can be a difficult and challenging thing to acknowledge for us who aim to be faithful disciples of the Lord. We are perhaps inclined to be a bit more like the workers in the field, who started early and laboured all day, only to have to wait at the end and receive nothing extra in our wages. I think the way in which we might grapple with this challenge is to consider that the way of Jesus is always invitational. From the beginning, Jesus invited people to share in his divine life: “Repent, the kingdom of God is near at hand”; “Come and see”; “Put out into the deep.” All of these are invitations.
As we know, this way of invitation was especially heard by those in greater need; they were the ones for whom the gift of forgiveness meant all the more. That man at the back of the temple: “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or the woman at the meal: “You did not offer a bowl of water to wash my hands, yet she has washed my feet with her tears.” Or from the Cross: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus went to the place where people were most in need, and there he invited them into his life.
Still (I might say to myself), how might I share in this heavenly generosity to the least and the last, if I am not that broken or wounded or despised or ugly? Ah, but I am! We are each, every one of us, a mixture of both the first labourer to start in the field, and the last to arrive. Each of us are light and shadow, each are great and least, each are living and dying. And it is to that darkest place, to that most remote setting in our own lives, to that most grievous inner wound of sin for which we turn away in disgust – that Jesus goes first to invite us into his life. Jesus saves, precisely at that place in each of us most in need of saving. Thanks be to God, for he goes first to our inner last.
In the kingdom of God, it is the last who will be first; in the way of Jesus, it is our last that will be first.
Image: The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli27 January 2021