Is it better to be first or to be last? What does it mean to be first? What does it mean to be last?
Once upon a time, there was a land, rich and fertile, full of growth. There were farms bursting with fruit and vegetables and all was well… for both the farmers who had large and successful farms… and for the smaller and more modest farms as well.
But then one year, a drought came over the land as the rain stopped falling and the ground grew dry and no longer bountiful. The fruit and vegetable crops began to fail, the plants began to die and all was not well in this once happy place. The farmers and their families could not sell their fruits and vegetables and so hard times came upon them. They could not fully feed their families and it was a time of much sadness and despair.
But not for Mortimer the farmer. He was lucky because his, and only his, farm was located next to a large lake and he determined a manner of irrigating water from the lake and out onto his fields. While all of the farms around his were brown and barren, Mortimer’s farm was rich in color and abundant.
Times were good for Mortimer the farmer.
One by one, the other farmers came to Mortimer’s farm and asked:
“Mortimer, will you share your water with us?”
“Mortimer, if we come with our wagons and barrels and carry the water ourselves, can we have some of your water?”
And: “Mortimer, one day the rains will return. Can you please help us keep our fruits and vegetables growing until that time? We will do anything to repay you for your kindness.”
But Mortimer’s heart was hardened and he took no sympathy on the other farmers. He wanted all of the water for himself. Every time he was asked one of these questions, he answered: “No!”
This went on for many months. Mortimer’s farm continued to thrive while all the other farms did not. Eventually, all of the other farmers stopped coming to visit Mortimer.
Then one day, while out working in his field… Mortimer slipped and fell and hurt his leg very badly. He could no longer tend to the field and his wife and young children could not, by themselves, keep up with all of the work. Mortimer’s field began to become overgrown. The fruits and vegetables began to die on the vine, unable to be harvested, unable to be sold.
Mortimer had an idea: what if all of the other farmers who could no longer tend to their own dry fields came and worked on his own? What if they helped Mortimer? And what if Mortimer, as repayment for their work, allowed them to take all the water from the lake that they needed? That way everyone would win. But as he thought about this possibility, he grew sad. He remembered that they no longer came by because he refused to help them before. He feared that his own selfishness would cause the other farmers to say no to him just as he had once told them no. So… Mortimer did not ask. And his farm began to fail.
Then, a short time later, the rain began to fall again. The other farms began to come back to life, the fruits and vegetables began to grow again and all was well again in all the land.
But sadly, not for Mortimer the farmer.
Jesus teaches his followers that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20). This is his way of saying that those who are in positions of great power or wealth or good fortune – such as Mortimer the farmer – here in this life are not guaranteed eternal life with him in heaven. In fact, he tells them that those who are poor or vulnerable, those who suffer or who face the greatest challenges in life, are going to be at the head of the line going into heaven. That those who might be ‘last’ here will someday be ‘first’.
It’s important to remember this in life because we are all special, all God’s beloved children, no matter what our lives may be like here. And also, it’s worth remembering that our circumstance may change, as happened with Mortimer. One day, he was ‘on top of the world’, the one with all the water, the one with the successful farm, the one who had everything he needed in order to be rich and powerful. He was first. But then in an instant, everything changed. He went from first to last.
So, if we find ourselves “last”, we must hold out hope knowing that our creator God cares for us deeply and loves us. And if we are “first”, we must be humble and caring to all those who are less fortunate.