Many Who are Last, Will Be First: Pondering the Great Reversal.

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:

  1. [Jesus said], “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matt 19:30 & also Matt 20:16 & also Mark 10:31)
  2. [Mary said], “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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)
  6. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. (Rom 8:18)
  7. 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 texts, and I am grateful if you will 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 for I, like others, have suffered in this life and experienced set backs. In regards to this, the Lord promises that sufferings and set backs, if endured with faith, produce ultimate profit, not loss. Much of this profit may wait till heaven, but surely sufferings endured with faith are like treasure stored up in heaven. First the cross, but then the crown. Hallelujah.

I am also consoled on account 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 others who seem to suffer so much more than others. Lost health, lost jobs, lost home and family members. Why, O Lord?!

I think of my poor sister who was mentally ill and horribly afflicted by demons and voices who spoke to her, haunted her and robbed her increasingly of any touch with reality. Ultimately her life ended tragically when she died in a fire. She was surely among the last. 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 and she said “I’m OK now, Charlie.” And somehow I knew that God was taking care of her, purifying and clearing her mind. And I also knew that she who was among the last but believed, I would one day see as among the first in the glory of heaven (pray God I get there). I suspect that she will be closest 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 and also for 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. Perhaps there is famine or natural disaster. Perhaps they are victims of despotic and corrupt governments. They are less free, less blessed, in 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 all the last shall be first but 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 does this say for me in the great reversal that is coming upon this world? I have good health, I enjoy bountiful blessings. I am more blessed that I deserve. I live in the greatest, richest, and most powerful country in the world. My needs are largely provided for. I am here in my air-conditioned room with time enough to write and ponder things 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?

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 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). Knowing  this and other texts like it, we still want to be rich, on top, first. We are very obtuse.

And so, I must say I am challenged. I am not defeated however or fatalistic. God has not utterly forsaken the “first.” He has left us a way and given us instruction on how to avoid the “curse”  of our wealth and good fortune. Simply put, that we should use our status as “first” to bless others. That our many gifts would be placed at the service of the human family. A few texts come to mind:

  1. [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)
  2. 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 tells 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 rocket. Rather we store it up by generously dispensing it to the poor. Perhaps by simple gift, or by providing  jobs and economic opportunity for others. Perhaps by sharing our gifts of knowledge, or time or other talents. In so doing perhaps our 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).

22 Replies to “Many Who are Last, Will Be First: Pondering the Great Reversal.”

  1. Your sister’s story touched me deeply as we are experiencing something similar in our family and it breaks our hearts, not because of the illness per se, but because this family member rejects God and our help. But as you say, Jesus blesses us so that we may be a blessing to others … In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the apostles to feed the people themselves, and they do. We must do the same, not give merely from our excess, but share what we have now. IThis is much harder than I thought it would be.

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post, as always.

  2. The great acted parable of the washing of the disciples’ feet (Jn.13:1-17) is the vivid counterpart of the teaching that the first shall be last (your item 1) and a lesson in humility for His disciples repeated elsewhere (Mt.23:8-12) which ends with the warning:- “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” See also in St. Luke (14:11) where the same warning is appended to the parable of guests choosing places at table.

    May I add 1Pet.5:5-7 (incorporating a quote from Pr.3:34) which also offers consolation to those to who suffer:-

    “And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for: ‘God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.’ So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.”

    The story of Job is a great reversal: from prosperity to affliction, and (Jb.42:10-17) from affliction back to prosperity. But the afflictions were not a punishment for pride (the classical theme of peripateia), rather a test from God.

    The greatest reversal (in fact, a double one) is the Incarnation, Passion, death, Resurrection and Ascension to glory of Our Divine Saviour – all so marvellously expressed in the Christological hymn in the second chapter of Philippians:-

    “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

    And as we suffer with Him, so also shall we share in His glory (a point already made in your quotation from 2Co.4:17 at item 7. in your article):-

    ” . . rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when His glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1Pet.4:12f.)

    In another place we are encouraged by the mutual inter-action of suffering and consolation among believers in Christ (2Co.1:5-7):-

    “For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.”

    The reading from Romans on Trinity Sunday also encouraged us to rejoice in our sufferings – from a slightly different perspective (Ro.5:3-5):-

    ” . . we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

    I hope you will not think I have strayed from the points you are making.

  3. This may seem strange to say but, over my 56 years, I have noticed that very religious people (and not necessarily Catholics only), do not seem to suffer or they don’t think they are suffering, no matter what misfortune comes their way. Their trust in Our Lord’s Providence is amazing, and they don’t show signs of stress. I think that is one of the things that drew me closer to my faith (Catholicism) in the last 15 years. It taught me that suffering is a relative term and that for those who trust God, as a child trusts her parents, suffering brings them closer to Him and can be consoling at the same time. The suffering who are faithful still go out of their way to help and console others, too. Perhaps this is why several psychologists interviewed recently in our local paper said that their patients who were religious were the easiest to cure. They humbly took the advice of the doctor and got on with their lives. They recognized God’s Providence.

  4. Prayers for your dear sister and for you, Msgr. Pope. God gives to the humble abundantly.

  5. Many teachers I know use He Who Would Be First Will Be Last as a classroom management tool. Shove your way to the front? Back of the line for you!

    I don’t think we ever outgrow our dislike for the back of the line, nor our resentment of those who elbow their way in ahead of us. Nor do we really outgrow the notion that life should be fair. It’s difficult to keep in mind that there is more to our lives than the time we spend on earth.

      1. When my daughter was a first-grader, I received a phone call that she had earned detention. When I arrived home:

        Me: So, you have detention tomorrow.
        c: Yes.
        Me: Why did you get detention?
        c: I hit someone.
        Me: Whom did you hit?
        c: um….actually it was several people.
        Me: *sigh* WHY did you hit them, sweetie?
        c: Because they BUTTED.
        Me: Butted?
        c: in LINE.
        Me: Sweetie, you’re not the Line Police. And even if you were, it’s not worth hitting over.
        c: *sigh*

        I wonder whether among “Things I Learned in Kindergarten” is “I Am Not the Line Police.” After all, how much should we judge who should be first, and who last?

  6. Good day monsignor, thank you for the beautiful explanations. And what you just felt with regards to your sister is really true, yes she is in God’s kingdom and her spirit sent that message to your heart. And with your wish to be in God’s kingdom will also come true, in fact it is now. Remember the prayer..your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We, the faithful will know and feel the presence of God’s kingdom on earth if we trust in Him. I make it a practice to focus on our creed (I Believe) and i place myself in the loving care of the Holy Spirit. The third part of our belief..I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church (my being single minded to my religion as compared to the practice of celibacy among the priest), the communion of saints (as i face the trials, sufferings, joy, happiness while moving on in life..i compare it to the stories of how the apostles and saints lived their way of life while they were on earth facing and fighting for what they believe in), the forgiveness of sins ( i learned how not to be mad of the world and people who opted to live in a worldly manner but instead pray for those people that they may be converted, changed their way of life, turn themselves to God and practice His teachings.) the resurrection of the body (after turning away from the worldly sins i try to live a holy life in the presence of the Holy Spirit and try to let that Holy Spirit control me in my body and soul with the grace of our Lord Jesus and the example of Mother Mary.)and in this manner and practice i learned and still learning to live the life in peace, joy, harmony and love among my brethren for the glory of my Lord and God. I am trying to be an example for others so they too i can lead to the true church and faith (simply catholic)as the saying goes ..those who are last will be the first in the kingdom of God. God bless us all and may the Holy Spirit strengthen us and continue to guide us to God’s Kingdom on earth.

  7. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing.): “What we give is measured by what we have left.” Let’s pray we don’t go away sad like the rich young man.

  8. Thanks so much for this post, Monsignor; the “Great Reversal” is something I’ve also thought of and wondered about, also seeing myself as one of the “first” in this life (good health, needs provided for, etc.). Another challenging passage on this topic from Scripture that comes to mind is the saying about the camel having an easier time going through the eye of a needle that the rich man getting into the Kingdom of Heaven. As you say, our best response is to store up our true treasure by sharing our earthly wealth with those in need; it also strikes me that it’s important to be very grateful to God for these blessings we have, as gifts from His hand (James 1:17), rather than taking them for granted and being greedy for more.

    The thought of the Great Reversal is, I think, what makes sense of much in this life that would otherwise be unbearable; a perspective based in eternity is itself a great blessing.

  9. Hasn’t the Lord lifted us up from our sinfulness and made us first through righeousness, so we should do likewise to those who are spiritually poor lest He take away what was given to us.

  10. My wife has suffered from abusive and confused childhood and when I married her, she has a son 1 year old whom I adopted. We raised himas I was his father and we had two more childern, a girl and boy. My wife was baptised in the churhc and we went through the premarritual couses prior to the wedding sacrament. In all this my wife sufferend from many psycholgical problems of her childhhod and regret for that failure of her first shot gun wedding. I was 31 at the time of our wedding and we met while working in St. Michael’s Catholic Hosipital. I was well connnected with the nuns and priest due to my family history of an uncle who was bishop in New Oleans, another a priest in Arkansas, and an aunt who was a nun with the Sister’s of the Sacred Heart convent in Houstoh, Louisiana and Arkansas. To say with modesty, my faith was the glue that held our turbulent relatiponship together. My wife was a codepndent of an abusive mother and alcohlic father, manitipulated by a mother who ran and coverted the fact;s of a family lving in secrets and lies with various abuses I only came to know over the time of our marriage, Where I was of the belief that honesty and oneness of our relation was the key to a successfull marriage and family, she was conflicted and victim of her manipulative and secretive family. When my wife began to suffer migrains and chemical addiction to prescription medications, I was oblivious of this until she was arrested for obtaining prescription drugs through fraudulent means. I went to a family concellor and after explaining the circumstances with three children and one having been adopted from a previous failed forced mariiage, the councellor said the best advise I have for you is to take your kids and get as far and fast away from this woman as you can. This was at heart a good women , lost in a confused dysfunctional family she had been raised in and she was the mother of my two child as well as my adopted son. My Cathoilc upbringing said that would be a failure to live up to the commitments of our marriage vows and for 27 years I have put up with the good, bad and the ugly. two of our children still have contact and relate to us though all the struggles. The oldest son who became a tough love child at 15 and eventually found out his real father had eventially abandoned him decided to contact the sperm donor and develop a relationship with the guy that didn’t have to go though the trials and tribulations of trying to raise a son in the church faith, They are all in their twenties and with families and lives of their own’s. The oldest and step son broke from us and it has taken a great toll upon my wife who could have chosen abortion as her mother reqested but chose to be his moher andI his father for better or worse. I always tried to instill the spitiual aspect of their life in their awarenes and have been left with a family basically of secularist with a father who not only was raised a devout Cathoic that had spiritual expercience at 22 without tryng to foust it upon them other than relating life in general. My wifes manic depressive behaviour over time and chemical dependency we struggle with for years brought us close and further apart emotionally and spritually. yet she ismy wife I vowed to have and to hold and cherish in sick , in health; for better or worse till death do us part. She has been in the hopsital the 27 years of our marriage mor time than I could recall and presently suffers chronic billiary digestive tract condition that will eventually lead to risky surgery to try and resolve the condition of repeditive stays. Financially we havebeen in the redthree times over the 27 years and this point leaves us with her in the hospital right in the middle of trying to move to an apartment and get out of a house the bank has called the full note on due to bad credit and her repetetive spending leavies me at home with a bank account 290 in the read and having to move into an aprtment by myself that is still wanting a copy of my last three pay check stubbs and I can only find one thanks to my wifes compulsive trashing of bills and statement from bill collectors. Frankly I’m ready to check out.
    I have faith in God but I feel like Jobe. I don’t blame anyone but myself.Like Job said. “Shit happens.’ I don’t take it personally but I feel my mission has been completed and has met it’s end. May the Lord accept the sacrifice from my hands to the praise and glory of His Name.

    1. Do not despair, Robert. Our loving God and Father never abandons us, even in the darkest hours of our lives.

  11. There is no trial or circumstance in this life greater than our God who made us. It matters not our part or priviledge in this world. This world, this life, is NOT fair. Its not supposed to be. But there is no human soul that He cannot and will not save (salvage). And there is no organization, institution, or creed of man that will thwart His purpose. He has a Great Plan that we can only see or know in part now. He is Sovereign, and there is none else. He is Just, and there is no end to His Love and Mercy.

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