Peter began to say to Jesus, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
In yesterday’s reading we saw the disappointment of the rich man who could not set God before worldly wealth, the rich man who turned away from Jesus’ call to follow him because possessions were placed before the call to love and serve. Today’s reading begins with Peter saying: Look, we have left everything and followed you. Yesterday’s reading and the words we hear today are often grouped together as one, and yet we are being invited to consider them separately. We are being invited to reflect further and deeper into our response to God’s call in our own lives.
The disciples have stood by and watched a wealthy man reject Jesus’ call. The disciples, who had indeed left everything to answer that same call, must have been both incredulous and sad at seeing someone reject that which they valued so highly. But … where would we place ourselves in this scenario?
Jesus wants us to understand that we are all wealthy in the eyes of God, because we have been made in his image. Some of us may have more worldly possessions than others, but that does not equate to the wealth we have been ascribed by God, which is a wealth beyond measure. Even if we live in what the world would describe as ‘abject poverty’, we still have the gift of life, we are still existing in the image and likeness of God. We still have worth. Similarly, if we have been blessed with worldly gifts and talents, we are also called to remember our kinship with those who are hungry and homeless, dispossessed and in despair.
This is the challenge with which many of us struggle. No matter how blessed we may be, we want more. Our desire for more is often so strong that it stands as a seemingly insurmountable barrier between ourselves, those less materially fortunate, and God!
Today’s reading opens with Peter’s statement of the blindingly obvious: we have left everything and followed you, to which Jesus responds with his famous words: many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Words that are not about our right to jump the queue, but words that are meant to constantly remind us of the call to recognize the wealth God has poured upon us, and to share that wealth with those we know to be less fortunate.
On one level, Peter’s words can be viewed as being smug and self-congratulatory. The rich man was presented with the challenge he and the other disciples had met. As the rich man went away grieving, the disciples must have felt a twinge of self-satisfaction that they had not fallen at that hurdle. However, even they would come to struggle with putting themselves at the back of the queue. There would be many moments in the ensuing gospel narrative that would reveal their human weakness, their inability to truly understand Jesus’ mission, and the mission he had come to lay on their shoulders.
Jesus’ words: many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, make up one of those gobbets from scripture that can be rolled out as a trump card when things are not quite going our way. But, that is not their purpose. Jesus leaves these words with us as a constant admonition not to be self-righteous. Jesus is calling us all into a life of humility, service and worldly poverty. Humility, service and poverty which is centred on God, and God alone. These powerful words should ever remind us, as we hesitate to help others, that if we wish to be among those welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, there is work to be done first. The work that is our joyful response to God’s call in our lives … even when it isn’t that convenient!