“Those who are last, will be first.”
After telling us to “be ready” back in chapter 12, Jesus taught us that we must “transform” and “produce fruit” if we are to avoid the self-destructive path of the world around us. But we are left wondering, “What exactly does it look like to ‘transform’? What does it look like to ‘produce fruit’?”
The text picks up with Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath, the holy and sacred day of rest. We are told that there was a woman there who had a “breath” or “spirit of weakness” for eighteen years. This “breath” or “spirit” had bent her over and she was not able to straighten up—it was oppressing her and holding her down. When Jesus saw her, he had immediate compassion on her and said, “Woman, be released from your weakness!” He then touched her and she was immediately able to straighten up. That which had been holding her down had lost its power over her—she was free.
Seeing this, the leader of the synagogue became furious that Jesus had done healing on the holy sabbath day. He angrily announced to everyone there, “There are six days when it is necessary to work—therefore, come be cared for on those and not on the day of rest!” The synagogue leader was afraid of Jesus and so instead of taking his anger out on Jesus, he took it out on those who were weak, sick, and ill. He told them to stop coming for healing on the sacred day of rest, for six days out of the week are plenty for that. This man, after all, was only upholding the very law that god had given through Moses, saying, “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.” According to the law of Moses, Jesus needed to die for this.
Jesus, however, did not back down at this passive aggressive attack. He said to the leaders of the synagogue, “Pretenders! Do not each of you, on the day of rest, release your ox or donkey from the feeding trough and, after bringing it out, give it a drink?” Jesus challenged all the leaders of the synagogue on what was permissible “work” on the holy day of rest, for even these leaders took care of the most basic needs of those under their care on the sabbath. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus had challenged them saying, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the day of rest, to save life or to destroy it?” Jesus knew that the whole purpose of the day of rest was to love and care for others. God made the sabbath day in the first place so that animals, workers, and land would not be overworked and abused and would all have the chance to rest. To care and look out for those on the bottom in the world was to truly observe the day of rest as god had intended. Therefore Jesus continued, “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom satan bound for, look, eighteen years—is it not necessary to release her from this binding on the day of rest?” These leaders undid the bonds of their animals so they could be free to get a drink, how then could they be mad at Jesus for undoing the bonds that held this woman in slavery?
We are told that those in power were dismissive of Jesus’ challenge and didn’t really listen to what he was saying. Jesus had humiliated these powerful leaders and lifted up this woman bent down under oppression. The crowds of common people rejoiced that Jesus would care for and stand up for the lowly and not let the laws or those in power stop him. Seeing this divided response from those in power and those without power, Jesus began teaching, “What is the rule of god similar to and with what will I compare it?” Here we begin to see more clearly what Jesus wants us to “be ready” for—the rule of god is coming into the world, the time when god will establish his rule and authority over all things.
So what is this rule and kingdom of god like? “It is similar to a grain of a mustard plant, which a person received and threw into her garden. It grew and became a tree and ‘the birds of heaven settled in its branches.’” Watching those in power reject him while the lowly rejoiced at his presence, Jesus taught that god’s rule in the world was like a tiny seed thrown into a garden. That lowly, tiny seed then grew and overtook the garden, becoming large enough to give food, shelter, and care to the animals. God’s rule was a very small thing, coming to take over individual lives and the world as a whole, in order to provide care for all.
Jesus continued, “With what will I compare the rule of god? It is similar to yeast, which a woman received and hid in three measures of wheat flour till it had all been yeasted.” Jesus then compared god’s coming rule to yeast, the small microorganism that, when added to dough, overtakes and transforms the whole thing. God was clearly coming into the world in a small and almost unnoticeable way, coming to overtake the world and transform it. This is what the followers of Jesus needed to “be ready” for in their generation and in every generation to come—including ours.
After this, Jesus moved on through cities and villages, with his eye still on Jerusalem. Back in chapter 9, Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, the capital of god’s people, for there everything would come to a head as he confronted the powers and authorities. On this journey someone approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, are only a few being rescued?” With everything Jesus had been teaching, this was a very good question. Jesus had told them that the whole world was on a path of destruction and only a radical “transformation” of life would bring rescue. Would only a few experience this “transformation” and thereby be rescued? Could this “transformation” ever be “popular”?
Jesus said to those with him, “Struggle to enter through the narrow door! I say to you, many will seek to enter and will not be able.” The way and door to rescue and freedom is “narrow,” Jesus tells us. It is a small opening that only the small will be able to enter through. Those who are big with power, status, wealth, and self-absorption will not be able to fit. Jesus tells us that many will try to fit through and will be unable because they will refuse to shed the power, status, wealth, and selfish ego they have accumulated. Hence, Jesus urges us to “struggle” and to “transform,” for we must be stripped down by being emptied of all that inflates us, if we are to enter through this “narrow door.” Becoming small as you strip off your status, power, wealth, and selfishness for the sake of loving your fellow creatures as much as yourself, is to “transform” and produce the fruit that god is working so hard to cultivate in your life. Jesus made himself small, becoming a dishonorable lawbreaker in order to heal the woman who was bent over in oppression. We are called to do likewise.
Jesus continued, “Once the house-master has been raised and has closed the door, then you will begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open for us!’ Answering, he will say to you, ‘I do not know you. Where are you from?’” At some point that “narrow door” to the kingdom of god will be closed. Then many will gather outside trying to get in—many who lingered on the outside thinking they could wait to strip down to get through the “narrow door.” These will say to the master, “We ate and drank in your sight and you taught in our streets!” The master will respond, “I do not know you….Stand away from me, all workers of injustice!” God does not “know” those on the outside of his kingdom, because in their accumulated power, status, wealth, and selfishness they are “workers of injustice”—they have chosen to reject god by not loving their fellow creatures as much as they love themselves.
Jesus continued, “There will be crying and snarling of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the rule of god, while you are being cast outside. They will show up from sunrise and sunset and from north and south and they will recline in the rule of god.” Many who think they belong in god’s family, will be sad and angry when they see that they have actually rejected god’s rule in their life. They will be angry that the forefathers and prophets they claimed to follow are on the inside while they are outside. They will be angry that there will be some in god’s kingdom from every tribe, language, and background that they thought were outcasts, heretics, sinners, and heathens.
Jesus then concluded with a powerful summary of what god’s rule and kingdom will do when it comes into the world. “Look! Those who are last, will be first! Those who are first, will be last!” This is what we need to “be ready” for, this is what it means to “transform”—it is to become the last and the least so that god may exalt us. God is here to reverse and flip all of our notions of greatness on their head. Mary, Jesus’ mother, had seen this at the very beginning of the gospel. She said, “God takes down the powers from their thrones and lifts up those of low status. He fills those who are hungering with good things and those who are wealthy he sends away empty.” Jesus had also taught this, saying, “Privileged are you who are dirt-poor, for you are under the rule of god. Privileged are you who are hungering now, for you will be fed….But condemned are you who are wealthy, for you are avoiding your calling. Condemned are you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.”
God is coming into the world to make the first, last, and the last, first. The first—the great, the honored, the powerful, the wealthy, the satisfied—who have refused to become small for their neighbor and thereby cannot fit through the “narrow door” of god’s kingdom, will be left outside as the true least of the world. The last—the small, the lowly, the weak, the poor, the hungry—who become small to love their neighbors and thereby enter through the “narrow door” of god’s kingdom, will be exalted by god, cared for by him, given true life, and raised from the dead. Let us pray that the spirit of god transforms us and makes us small so that for the love of others we might become the last in the world. For “those who are last, will be first!” Amen.