As Christ nears the end of his earthly ministry, he exposes the nonsense of religious hypocrisy. The Seven Woes in this message contrast sharply with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.
30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
This verse does wonders to correct our outlook on life. First, it discourages the bigger, better, faster, more mentality that we so often engage in. If only … and everything would be all right. And so we strive with all our might for whatever “…” is, on the assumption that if we achieve it, we would be happy, or finally attain our rightful position in life. Sometimes this is really about seeking to be first. If so, we can be pretty sure God is not pleased with it. The verse come right after a verse on self-sacrifice or self-denial.
29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.
If self-sacrifice or self-denial involves putting ourselves last for the sake of Jesus, then we can do so happily, trusting that we lose nothing in the process. It will likely even lead to long-term gain.
Second, we sometimes feel “last” unintentionally. Despite our best efforts, things just have not gone our way. This may be a blessing in disguise. If we had our way, we might have succeeded and been able to put ourselves first, and then what? In the Great Future Reversal of Status (a term I just made up), we would lose. Honestly, we would rather be last now. There is little advantage to the attainment of visible status at the present time. So says Jesus.
Our goal must be to put Jesus first no matter what. There may be an “opportunity” to give something or someone up for him, though it may be disappointing in the present moment. Then, of course, we can often give priority to others. Let their needs be met, even if we do without, for Jesus’ sake. That’s often hard and doesn’t feel right or enjoyable most of the time. The point is we should not live for the present, but for eternity. Going last is the way to do it.
Sometimes we think of great faith as the kind of faith that prays for great things and sees amazing answers to prayer. That is probably how great faith frequently looks, but great faith need not always look the same. Consider the case of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.
21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The greatness in the woman’s faith is not that she asked for anything more than others might ask. The Gospels give several examples of people coming to Jesus on behalf of their children and Jesus healing them or even raising them from the dead. He cast out plenty of demons.
Jesus commends her faith before granting her request, but only after an interaction in which Jesus seems to refuse her. First he says nothing (v.23), then he pushes the Gentile/Jewish distinction beyond what we might even consider polite (vv. 24-26). Her humility and persistence in the face of Christ’s seeming condescension and persistent refusal brings out his praise (v.28).
If you are like me you have several prayer requests that God has not seen fit to answer even after many years, maybe decades or most of your life. And like me you struggle and are tempted to give up. You might see numerous reasons why God would never answer these prayers. “I’m not worthy. I’m really not worthy. God doesn’t answer prayers like these for people like me. Why should he?” These reasons (and I have more) sound a lot like “The Jewish Messiah isn’t about to grant the request of a Canaanite woman, is he?” But he did.
The point is that neither an unanswered prayer nor what looks like a humiliating refusal are the same thing as a final “no.” Jesus used his delays to draw out further expressions of the woman’s faith. That faith was in her all the time, but had Jesus responded quickly, none of us would have seen it and we might never know.
Let’s be the kind of people who hang on like the devil – or better, like this Canaanite woman – with whatever faith we have and then even more. Sometimes faith grows in its praying, its asking, humility and continuous kneeling before God. Sometimes God’s answers come only after long delays. A paltry, weak and sickly faith can be satisfied with quick answers, and then it may mislead us into thinking such faith is great. In fact, great faith, like this woman’s, may be the faith that keeps asking without any answer in sight.
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Dear Lord Jesus,
Today I am feeling especially weak in my labors and I sense that I need your rest. It is not merely a physical rest that I am in need of, but a spiritual rest for my soul. Help me not to let my burdens get the best of me, but rather help me to share them with you. Help me to experience your rest, the spiritual rest that only you can give.
I desire to learn from you, Lord Jesus. Teach me what it is to be gentle and lowly in heart just as you are. It is precisely in this lowliness that I am reminded I was not meant to bear these burdens alone. You invite me to serve alongside you. Just as two oxen were joined by their yoke, I desire to be joined with you. It is then and only then that I will not be heavy laden in my service. Again, help me to experience your rest, the rest that only you can give.
Your yoke is easy and your burden is light. How different this is from the yoke and the burden of the world. Elsewhere you said that apart from you, we can do nothing. How true that is, and how clear it is that laboring alone, without you, is foolish. Please take my work, my labors, my heavy burdens upon yourself and place your yoke upon me.
Help me, Jesus, to experience the work that is actually rest when I labor together with you. There is really no other way for me to effectively serve.