This article aims at helping on understanding Yeshua’s statement, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” in light of the original context of the “rich, young ruler” as well as a Talmudic anecdote involving a near-death experience.
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, ” ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
” ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew 19:16-20:16 (NIV)
When we communicate Yeshua’s teaching of “the first will be last, and the last will be first,” rarely do we connect the questioning of the “rich, young ruler” with his parable of the generous landowner. However, as we can see from this complete, uninterrupted passage, they are inseparable.
In the story of the rich, young ruler, their are actually two points of conflict. First, the man is troubled by his inability to be rewarded for his current merits, which he felt were satisfactory. Second, the disciples were troubled because of Yeshua’s critical assessment of those who have earthly means, declaring that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Paraphrasing, they asked, “Then who has any hope?” Yeshua responded by telling them that “the first will be last, and the last will be first,” and then proceeds to tell them a parable.
In this parable, he sets the stage with average characters on an average day. The climax comes at the end of the story with a surprise ending. Everyone is expecting the workers who worked the longest and hardest in the heat of the day to be rewarded more than those who labored for only a short time. This is not the case, and it causes the listener to instinctively feel a sense of injustice. However, we must look beyond the surface to understand the point the Master (and the Master story-teller) is communicating.
In a Talmudic incident recorded in b.Bava Batra 10b we have an illustration to help us better understand the words of the Master. In this story, a man named Yoseph (son of Rabbi Yeshoshua) was extremely ill and had a “near-death” experience in which he experience the “next life” for a brief moment. When he came back to his senses, his father asked him to relate what he saw. His response was, “I saw an upside-down world, where great ones were low, and lowly ones were above!” His father comforted him by responding, “You glimpsed a world of clarity.” His father went on to explain to him that although he may expect those who are learned and accomplished to have more reward in the life-to-come, it is not necessarily the case. Why? Because we are rewarded based on how we live up to the potential Hashem has put with each one of us.
Most will not be world renown. We simply have to be faithful with all with which Hashem has entrusted us. We will not be judged based on the achievements of others. Nor will we granted leniency based on how others are slacking. There are those who are given very little, yet live out their abilities to the extreme. However, there are others who are immensely blessed with all kinds of internal resources, yet waste their resources on self-indulgence. Although it appears that Hashem grades on a curve, He actually does not, because the standard is the same for everyone—we must become all that we were intended to become for His glory.
The Chasidic teacher Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol used to say, “When I come before the heavenly court and am asked, ‘Zusha, why were you not Moses?’ I will answer, ‘Because I did not have Moses’ leadership abilities.’ And when I am asked, ‘Zusha, why were you not Abraham?’ I will answer, ‘Because I was not blessed with Abraham’s intellectual abilities.’ For every such question, I will have an answer. But when I am asked, ‘Zusha, why were you not Zusha?’ for that I will have no answer.”
(Telushkin, Joseph, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 1, p. 32)
Will I become Darren? Will you become you? Or will we be last, rather than first in the Olam Haba (the word-to-come)? It will definitely be a time of surpises. Don’t be a “first” who ends up “last,” and definitely don’t be a “last” who thinks they can’t be “first.” Take the US Army slogan to heart, and “Be all that you can be.”
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