One of the strong traditions of Scripture is of the great reversal that will one day come for many. I have often been sobered by it when I consider how blessed I have been in this life. I have also been consoled by it when I struggle to understand why some people in this world seem to suffer so much more that I do, or others do.
Life seems a very uneven proposition if we only look at this side of the equation. Only God sees the whole picture, but to some extent, he has revealed that those who have suffered much in this life will be more than rewarded in the life to come and that 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:
- But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first (Matt 19:30, Mark 10:31).
- He has cast down the mighty from their thrones but 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).
There are other examples, and I invite you to add to this list. But, for now, let these suffice. As I have said, I am both challenged and consoled by these texts.
I am consoled because I have suffered and experienced setbacks in this life, as I’m sure have you. But the Lord promises that if these are endured with faith, they ultimately lead to profit, not loss. And while much of this benefit may wait until Heaven, sufferings endured with faith are like treasure stored up in Heaven. First the cross, but then the crown. Hallelujah!
I am also consoled on behalf of others. I know many people who have suffered far more than seems fair. They have experienced loss after loss: lost health, lost jobs, lost homes, lost family members. My humanity recoils at this and I often cry to God on the behalf of these people who seem to suffer so much more than others. Why, O Lord?
But I am also challenged. I am certainly among those who are first. What does this say for me in the great reversal that is coming upon this world? My health is good; I enjoy bountiful blessings. I am more blessed that I deserve. I live in the richest and most powerful country in the world. My needs are largely provided for. I am here in my temperature-controlled room with plenty of time to write and to ponder things. I live far above mere subsistence level. I am surely among the first, the rich. Even the poorest in this country are blessed compared to many in other parts of the world.
Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, when the great reversal sets in?
Not everything is as it appears. We crave wealth, power, and access, considering those to be blessings. We want to be first. But God warns that it 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).
Even though we are familiar with texts like this 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 those who are first. He has left us a way. He has given us instruction on how to avoid the “curse” of our wealth and good fortune: use our position as “first” in order to bless others; place our many gifts at the service of the human family. A few texts come to mind:
- 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 those 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 sending it up in a balloon or rocket! Rather, we store it up by generously dispensing it to the poor and needy. We may do this through a simple gift. Perhaps we provide jobs and economic opportunity for others. Maybe we share our knowledge, talents, or time. In doing such things, perhaps our curse of being among the first will be overcome.
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.)