On several occasions, in different contexts, Jesus swapped the first with the last. He said it both ways: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and also, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In some contexts—such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which twelve-hour workers were paid the same amount as one-hour workers—Jesus seems to be saying that all are equal, that no one is first and no one is last. That approach appeals to contemporary culture, where much emphasis is placed on the equality of all people. But a more careful study of the words of Jesus in their context, and in the teaching of his Church, shows more significance to his saying than merely, “No one is first and no one is last because everyone is the same.”
Most of us want to be first. Few of us achieve the humility of Paul, who called himself “chief of sinners” and “least of the apostles.” But none of us deserves to be first. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have failed to meet our Maker’s specifications. We all need to be rescued from our sins and from evil, redeemed from the cost of our misdeeds and failures, and reconciled again to God who made us. We cannot rescue or redeem or reconcile ourselves. We need Jesus to do these things for us.
Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, and the entire universe belongs to him. He became human, like us in every way except that he never sinned. Jesus is first in a way that none of us can be first—first in divine power and glory, and first in human purity and perfection. When rewards are distributed for a righteous life, not only is Jesus first in line—he is the only one who deserves a place in line.
But Jesus, who is first, becomes last for all of us. By making himself last, Jesus makes each of us first. He puts us in the front of the line by surrendering his position to us. Being last, Jesus takes upon himself our guilt and our punishment. He goes to the cross for us so we can be rescued and redeemed. He takes for himself death, the wages of sin, so that each of us can receive the free gift of everlasting life.
God is not fair. He makes the first last, and he makes the last first. But God’s injustice is not opposed to us. God’s injustice is in our favor. Jesus is generous and does not complain that our reconciliation with God is unfair to him. Jesus gladly cheats the system, taking away our sins and giving each of us the blessings earned by his perfect righteousness.
The first becomes last to make all of us who were last into the first. No longer enemies of God, we have become the adopted children of God. In that sense we all are equal. But the first and the last trading places leads to more than equality—it leads to rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. Jesus has done this for us, because of his holy love for us. J.