A reader asked what Jesus meant when he said “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. It is a good question because this proverb is used several times by Jesus in the Gospels. To properly understand his teaching, several such core concepts must be mastered, one at a time.
This proverb expresses a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching of the counter-intuitive reversal of fortune that the Kingdom of God will deliver when it comes. There are three groups outlined by Jesus where this is demonstrated:
- Many Gentiles will achieve entrance in the Kingdom while large numbers of the chosen people of Israel do not enter. (Lk 13:28-30; Mt 20:1-16);
- Among Israel, the outcasts (tax collectors, sinners, and unlearned) would appear ahead of the religious (Pharisees, scribes, lawyers, priests, rich). (Mk 10:23-31; Mt 19:23-30; Luke 6:20; Luke 14:11)
- Those who suffer now will have comfort in the Kingdom but those who are rich and comfortable in this world will appear behind those who suffer now. (Lk 16:19-31)
The parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man” (Lk 16:19-31) expresses this last point grandly, although most completely misread the parable as a complete and accurate depiction of life after death (which it is not; come on, burning in hell and wanting water for your tongue?). Most Christians completely miss that Jesus was drawing upon common Egyptian and Jewish concepts on the afterlife in order to make an important point on the Kingdom. He was not teaching us that we burn in hell when we die. All other teachings in the Bible on the afterlife contradict that conclusion.
The point he was making is again the reversal of fortunes and how what we should seek now is counter-intuitive or not what we naturally seek. This reversal does not even depend on righteousness vs. wickedness. Lazarus is not said to be a righteous man nor is the rich man called a sinner. Instead, one had suffering and the other comfort, respectively. After they both die, their situation is reversed in the next life. Lazarus is seen reclining with Abraham in the kingdom and the rich man is seen suffering outside in the common humanistic vision of a hell (not in a theologically correct unconscious separation from God – Ecc 9:5) .
Jesus is warning us through this parable and his saying “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” that it does not matter who we are. No special favor is afforded by birth. We must seek the right things in this world, things that are counter-intuitive, so that in the next life, which is forever, we will benefit. These “riches in heaven” are won by seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness in this world (Mt 8:28). And many groups who you would think today have a corner on these riches, in reality will be nowhere to be seen in the Kingdom of God.