When the teacher makes the same point again and again, you can be sure it will be on the test. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” At the end of the previous chapter he said, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30). And a few verses after the parable, he said, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (10:26-27).
You get the lesson, don’t you? In the world Jesus describes, the order of things is reversed, our expectations are upset, our notions of fairness are overturned, the rules we think govern life turn out to be misleading. The student voted most likely to succeed ends up with nothing, while the one who graduated in last place gets the corner office in the executive suite. The kid chosen last for the team turns out to be the team captain, and the former captain gets benched.
We grow up hearing that if you work hard, you, too, can be successful. We learn that perseverance brings privileges, and if you stick with anything long enough, you’ll be rewarded. The principle even applies to spiritual growth. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,” the old hymn says, and “every round goes higher, higher” until we get to the top, where heaven is. Society tells us, keep climbing, keep striving, keep achieving, keep reaching for the stars.
But Jesus says: Wait a minute. That’s not how the life I’m talking about works. Accumulation doesn’t make wealth, acquisition doesn’t build power, climbing the ladder doesn’t bring success or get you to heaven, and the one who dies with the most toys isn’t the winner. It’s in emptying yourself and seeking the lowest place that you find true wealth. Your notions of fairness don’t govern God’s grace, and the greatest treasures come in the smallest, plainest packages.
Five hundred years ago, Fra Giovanni Giocondo wrote to a friend:
Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty: believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Our joys, too: be not content with them as joys, they too conceal diviner gifts.
It took me a long time to learn the truth of what Jesus said and of what Fra Giovanni wrote so poetically, and I’m still learning it. The days when I was climbing the ladder of success are past. So is the wider influence I might have had. I’ve saved as much wealth for retirement as I’m ever going to save. My life is no longer enlarging; it’s growing smaller.
It’s also growing deeper and richer. I learned that the higher I climbed, the more unstable my footing became. The wider my influence reached, the thinner it grew. The more I accumulated, the more I had to lose, the more attention things required, and the less attention I had to give to the still, small voice within and to what it has to teach me. Now I’m learning less from the great thinkers and theologians of history and more from the common yellow woodsorrel that grows in my backyard. Most people consider it a weed and are diligent to keep it out of their yards and gardens. I consider it a prophet, a messenger of God, and I welcome it.
The woodsorrel reminds me of the beauty to be found in the smallest unwanted things. It reminds me to live slowly and deliberately and to look carefully at the parts of life that are easily overlooked. It reminds me that even tiny weeds have flowers and a necessary place in the scheme of things. And it teaches me that the small, well-lived life has its value, its place in the order of creation. The last and the least are turning out to be first, after all.