Sunday, July 13, 2008

What does it mean that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”?

I am pretty interested in finding out, because I really like to be first. I was always annoyed in school that my last name started with W and I had to wait so long to be seated or that I got seated in the back. I like to sit in the front on the bus so that I can get out first. The closer to the front I can sit on the airplane, the better I like it, because I like to be first on and first off. At the dinner table at home growing up, I strategically placed myself in the middle so that I could reach everything and get to everything quickly so that I could be the first to serve myself of my favorite foods, so that I could eat quickly and be the first to be done so that I could be the first to talk and tell everyone about my day while everyone was still eating and would rather eat and listen instead of talk. Sounds pretty.. um.. selfish, doesn’t it?

What does it mean that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”?

I have heard this phrase from time to time growing up and it seems to say in a vague sort of way that it is supposed to ensure fairness in the eternities, but as I ponder it, the following questions come to mind:

Who is first? Who is last? Is this temporal or spiritual? Or is it both?
And the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations, both unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles; and after he has manifested himself unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles, then he shall manifest himself unto the Gentiles and also unto the Jews, and the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
(1 Nephi 13:42)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
(Romans 1:16)
Graft in the branches; begin at the last that they may be first, and that the first may be last, and dig about the trees, both old and young, the first and the last; and the last and the first, that all may be nourished once again for the last time.
(Jacob 5:63)
Here “first” and “last” seems to refer to the order in which people receive their opportunity(s) to hear the gospel. The first time Heavenly Father gave his chosen the first chance. Then, after the apostasy, He restores the gospel first to those who had to wait until last before.

Here's a parable on the topic that has always bothered me just a little:
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
(Matt 20:1-16)
Here, it seems to me that the first who went to work in the Lord’s vineyard are like those who joined the church early in their lives and the last are like those who joined the church near the end of their lives. It seems to show us that when the Lord starts handing out our eternal rewards, he starts with those who were the last to get involved and gives them eternal life.

Those of us who were part of the work from the beginning will naturally expect a higher reward than those who only became part of it in the end, and if we aren’t careful, we will be angry that everyone who was part of the work is getting the same reward. (I know I probably would.) The Lord’s answer will be that He is giving us exactly what He agreed to give us and it is His to give anyway. “Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” Are we going to be angry because He is being merciful and kind? (Oops, we better not, because anger at mercy and kindness is a sign of apostasy. Remember the Zoramites - see Alma 35:8-10)

Something that is interesting to notice is the order that the Lord calls the laborers in for payment. He doesn’t start with the first, he starts with the last to be hired. Why were they the last to be hired for work? They must have appeared weak to all the people who were looking for workers. They may have been infirm and physically handicapped. They may have been developmentally disabled. And when no one would hire them, the Lord did.

These people are used to being last. They are the last to understand in school. They are the last to get a good job, because they seem unemployable. They are the last to be benefited in good economic times. They are the last.

Heavenly Father sees all of this and His heart bleeds for them. So He gives them their reward first before anyone else. They get to be first after all the times they were neglected and forgotten. Maybe they get to be taught first and everyone concentrates on them before anyone else. Maybe get their celestial mansions first. (This is pure speculation on my part, but it would make sense.) When it comes to what really matters, they get it first. But what about us? What about me? What if I want to be first there?

Evidently the 12 apostles were very concerned about something like this, because Christ had to say something about it:
And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
(Matt 19:29-30)
And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.
(Mark 9:35)
So there it is; I have to put myself last and serve others first in this life.

I remember when Christmas Day would come in our house and we would gather our gifts together, everyone with their own pile of gleamingly wrapped presents and my dad would say to us, “I think we will start with the youngest first.” And my youngest brother Trent would tear into his first gift with the enthusiasm of a released puppy. I was the oldest and I often would resent my father’s decision, because he did it the same way every year, but now, after my study of these scriptures, I see it was fair for my youngest brother to be first. After all, I was first in so many things already – first to be born, first to go to school, first to have my own room, first to drive, first to date, first in the year to have a birthday, first-first-first. And I never stopped to consider that when my dad always decided that opening Christmas gifts should start with the youngest he was putting himself last. But because he did that, I can now see in him that quality of both selflessness and fairness that Heavenly Father has.

I strongly suspect that our ability to build Zion depends to a certain extent upon whether we develop these qualities of putting others first.
And then cometh the New Jerusalem; and blessed are they who dwell therein, for it is they whose garments are white through the blood of the Lamb; and they are they who are numbered among the remnant of the seed of Joseph, who were of the house of Israel.
And then also cometh the Jerusalem of old; and the inhabitants thereof, blessed are they, for they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb; and they are they who were scattered and gathered in from the four quarters of the earth, and from the north countries, and are partakers of the fulfilling of the covenant which God made with their father, Abraham.
And when these things come, bringeth to pass the scripture which saith, there are they who were first, who shall be last; and there are they who were last, who shall be first.
(Ether 13:10-12, emphasis added)
What happens when people concentrate on helping the poorest and last and lowest before themselves?
And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.
(Moses 7:18)
The status of the poor improves because all Zion focuses on them first, to the point that they aren't poor anymore. But Zion doesn't stop there. Zion continues to concentrate on whatever level is happens to be at the bottom until it is brought higher. Naturally it will take longer because there are more people there, but sooner or later that level rises too. This pattern continues until everyone is at the same level, and then all advance together, higher and higher...

This pattern is completely different from that followed by the world. Every time the world wants to help the poor, they start at the wrong end, by helping the rich get richer, hoping that "trickle-down economics" will allow enough money and opportunities to get to the lower strata of society. It doesn't work. They keep trying to do it this way and it will never work; they are starting at the wrong end.

At the beginning I asked whether this last-shall-be-first business is temporal or spiritual or both. It seems clear to me now that it is both. How are we doing in both these things?

What if we were to become less concerned about being first?
What would this world be like if people parked furthest away in the parking lot from the store and allowed those who were weak on their legs the first chance at a parking spot near the door?

What if CEOs gave raises to those with the smallest salaries first?

What if we let the people at the back of the bus and the back of the plane get off first?

What if we made a donation to the church fast offerings or to the church humanitarian aid fund or perpetual education fund before we went on vacation ?

What if I had waited for other people to be served before I served myself?

I don’t know about you, but I have some repenting to do. ‘Scuse me…


Anonymous said...

Good explaination. I now see I need to put myself last. I will continue to read and research this topic. I will need help daily.