One of the strong traditions of Scripture is of the great reversal that will one day come for many. I have been sobered by it when I consider how blessed I have been in this life; I have been consoled by it when I struggle to understand why some people seem to suffer so much more than I or others do.
Life seems a very uneven proposition if we only look at our side of the equation. Only God sees the whole picture. To some extent, though, He has revealed that those who suffer much in this life will be rewarded in the life to come; there will be a great reversal.
The theme of the great reversal is most fully developed in the New Testament where the understanding of the life to come is also most developed.
Consider the following texts:
- [Jesus said], “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt 19:30, 20:16; Mark 10:31).
- [Mary said], “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones but has lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; but the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:52-53).
- Abraham replied [to the rich man], “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented” (Luke 16:25).
- Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way (Luke 6:21-26).
- Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more (Luke 12:48).
- I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us (Rom 8:18).
- For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).
While less prominent in the Old Testament, the notion of the great reversal is set forth there as well. Here is one example:
The bows of the mighty are broken, while the tottering gird on strength. The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry batten on spoil. The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes. The Lord puts to death and gives life; he casts down to the nether world; he raises up again. The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he humbles, he also exalts. He raises the needy from the dust; from the ash heap he lifts up the poor… He will guard the footsteps of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall perish in the darkness. For not by strength does man prevail; the Lord’s foes shall be shattered (1 Sam 2:3-8).
As I have said, I am both challenged and consoled by these texts.
I am consoled because I, like others, have suffered and experienced setbacks in this life. The Lord promises that sufferings and setbacks, if endured with faith, ultimately produce profit, not loss. Much of this profit may wait until Heaven, but sufferings endured with faith are like treasure stored up in Heaven. First comes the cross, but then the crown. Hallelujah!
I am also consoled on behalf of others. I, like you, know people who have suffered far more than seems fair. Loss after loss mounts up, grief after grief. My humanity recoils and I often cry to God on behalf of those who seem to suffer so much more than others. Lost health, lost jobs, lost home, lost family members. Why, O Lord?
I often think of my poor sister who was mentally ill and horribly afflicted by demons and voices that spoke to her, haunted her, and increasingly robbed her of any touch with reality. Ultimately her life ended tragically when she died in a fire. She was surely among the “last” in this life. But she loved God and wanted desperately to get well. The day after she died I offered Mass for her and I heard her speak to me in the depth of my heart. She said, “I’m OK now, Charlie.” And somehow I knew that God was taking care of her, purifying and clearing her mind.
I also knew, because she was among the last, but believed, that I would one day see her among the first in the glory of Heaven (pray God I get there). I suspect that she will be close to the throne and that I, who have been among the first here in this world, will have a “mansion” far less spacious than hers.
I am consoled for my sister’s sake as well as the sake of those who, unlike me, live in great poverty in other parts of the world. The bounty of American living is but a dream to them. Perhaps there is war, or famine, or natural disaster. Perhaps they are victims of despotic and corrupt governments. They are less free, less blessed, under greater stress, and often in desperate need. They are among the “last” in this world. But if they have faith they will be blessed to be among the first in the great reversal that is coming when the Kingdom fully breaks in. Faith is essential. Jesus did not say that all the last shall be first, but rather that many who are last shall be first. I am sure that it is living faith that makes the difference.
But I am also challenged. I am among those who are first. What will happen to me in the great reversal that is coming upon this world? I have good health. I enjoy bountiful blessings. I am more blessed than I deserve. I live in the greatest, richest, and most powerful country in the world. My needs are largely provided for. I sit here in my air-conditioned room with time enough to write and ponder things. I am far beyond mere subsistence. I am surely among the first, the rich. Even the poorest in this country are blessed compared to many others in the world.
Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, when the great reversal sets in?
Indeed, not everything is as it appears. We crave wealth, power, and access and call it a blessing. We want to be first. But God warns that this may well be a curse:
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains (1 Tim 6:9-10).
Despite being familiar with this text and other like it, we still want to be rich, on top, first. We are very obtuse!
And so I am challenged. I am not, however, defeated or fatalistic. God has not utterly forsaken the “first.” He has left us a way. He has given us instruction on how to avoid the “curse” of our wealth and good fortune. Simply put, we must use our status as “first” to bless others. Our many gifts should be placed at the service of the human family. A few texts come to mind:
- [Jesus said], “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with deceitful wealth, so that when it fails, they [likely the poor whom we befriended] will welcome you into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
- Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life (1 Tim 6:17-19).
And so it is that the Lord instructs us who are “cursed” to be first, to store up our true treasure in Heaven (Matt 6:19). Of course we do not store up our treasure in Heaven by putting it in a balloon or a rocket. Rather, we store it up by generously dispensing it to the poor and needy. Perhaps it is by a simple gift, or by providing jobs and economic opportunity for others. Perhaps it is by sharing our gifts of knowledge, time, or other talents. In so doing, perhaps the curse of being among the first will be overcome and the challenge will be met.
The great reversal is coming! Where will I be when the first trumpet sounds?
This chant of the funeral Mass refers to the great reversal, but prays that the deceased will be found with Lazarus, who once was poor. The text says, In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem. (May the angels lead you to paradise and at your coming may the martyrs receive you and may they lead you into the Holy City Jerusalem. May a choir of angels receive you and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.)