In today’s readings, Jesus tells people that some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last in the kingdom of heaven. When I read these lines today, I thought about a recent trip to the airport in July to visit my mother in Florida. The line to security was at least four times as long as I have ever seen it: not only was every row in the security area full, but the line stretched out and snaked its way past the ticket counters, and out into the large open area of the terminal. As many of us waited in line at looked at our watches, a woman in an uniform came around and asked everyone to check if she or he had TSA pre-check. Sure, enough, a few people did, and those people were able to get up to the front of the line and get through airport security before the rest of us. “The last will be first,” I thought.
The thing is, I don’t think that is what Jesus means when he tells us that some of the last will be first, or the first will be last. I don’t think it is about a shorter line at the pearly gates before St Peter checks out our credentials. Instead, I think it goes along with a different kind of theme that Jesus often preached on: being small. Jesus often tells us that while the world values money, power, status, and security, God’s attitude is different. Jesus preaches on how much God loves wildflowers like lilies, sparrows, children, poor widows, and unknown women from Galilee. Mary, God’s own mother, is the lowly one who is “lifted up by the Lord”, who reveals to us that God loves the hungry and poor and wants to fill them with whatever it is that they need: God’s very self, especially.
God is abundant love, and it’s our ideas about who is first and last, or who ought to be first or last, that will be thrown out the window in heaven. God reminds us: it is not only okay to be small, but good to be small, because God loves to seek out and to abide in small spaces.
Sometimes when people think about “being small,” it can mean something negative to them: like when we feel diminished by someone’s actions or apparent lack of care for us and our well being. We can “feel small” and then in response want to make ourselves bigger, or compete, and this can lead to conflict and difficulty with others and inside of ourselves. But God invites us to something different: Be small, know that you are, in fact, nothing at all, really, in comparison to God—dust to dust. But know that this nothing-but-God’s-small-flower that St Therese of Lisieux spoke of, or the nothing-but-a-poor-preacher that St Francis wrote about—and whose life St Ignatius fell in love with as a model for his own God filled life—this smallness is exactly what God loves and adores.
God became incarnate in the life of a baby in a small town to a woman named Mary who was small in the eyes of the world, but open in her smallness to God being present to her and with her. “The Lord is with you.” That is what it means to be blessed. So perhaps what Jesus means when he says to enter through the narrow gate is: be little, be lithe, be grateful, and the narrow gate will be plenty wide enough for you to get through. Don’t be surprised if the ways that you judge and evaluate things in this world are not very much at all like God’s ways of evaluating them, or think that you know for one minute who is first or last for God, or even if your ways of judging apply to God at all. And let God’s love and Jesus’ ways of living be our guide.
For it is in smallness and letting go of our desire to be first that we make room for God to be first, and so to lead us in love.