When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples
and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The greatest is the least. This seems to be pretty important, for Jesus teaches about this frequently. Once, after squabbling about who would get to sit at Jesus’s right and left in His Kingdom, Jesus told his disciples that the one who desires to be great will be last. In another instance he uses this pithy phrase to teach this message: “the first will be last and the last shall be first.” And here Jesus uses the same formula in reference to John the Baptist, calling him the greatest [prophet] ever, and yet pointing out the reality that as he sits in prison awaiting execution he is certainly in last place according to the world.
Jesus would know a thing or two about being both first and last. That the high King of Heaven, the Lord of all Creation, would take on flesh and be born, and be born to a poor, peasant family in cold, dusty Palestine in particular, is certainly an example of the first taking the last place. Our God is a God who bows low, who assumes last place, for us.
As I think back to Christmas memories from my childhood, my favorite memories of Aunts, Uncles, and Grandparents are of those that would play with me. The ones that walked around talking at me or ignoring me didn’t make the greatest impression, whereas those that got down on the ground, jumped into the pool, and threw the ball around with me did. The grownups that were willing to put aside their grownup things for a few minutes in order to meet and play with me where I was made a great impression on me.
God’s Kingdom is like that. Jesus is like that. John the Baptist was like that. You and I, too, are called to be like that, if we are to follow this Jesus.
The logic of the first being last doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for success in your job or life. Rather, it teaches that such success doesn’t define your ultimate worth, that it isn’t, perhaps, as important as you might think. Today as you pray, consider your life, your job, your responsibilities, your role at your local church. How might you set aside your power and assume a posture of last place? Perhaps someone else needs to “win” today? Maybe you don’t have to get your way. Or, maybe there are those who are clearly in last place and in need of a friend, a hug, a word of encouragement, or an unexpected Christmas gift. Today, pray and consider how you might embrace the logic of being last in order to be first.