The Last Shall Be First, and the First Shall Be Last…

A Modern-Day Parable:

            A friend and I had won tickets to a concert in a newly built stadium in town. While we had won two tickets, they were not together. I received a ticket for ‘A-4’, while he received a ticket for seat ‘I-9’. While disappointed that our seats were not together, I was excited by my good fortune, assuming that seat ‘A-4’ was a floor seat in the first row, right in front of the stage.


            On the night of the show, we arrived at the venue, quite excited for the night ahead, the mood only a little dampened by the fact that we would not experience the show together. We entered the location and began searching for our seats, planning to split up once we found his place so we could choose a spot to meet up afterward. We soon saw the entrance for the ‘I-K’ section and began to enter. I assumed I could go through his doorway and head down toward the floor from there, as I had tickets for ‘A-4’. As we approached the entrance, we showed the security person our tickets and I was quickly told I could not enter through that doorway but had to head up two decks to the balcony seats. It turned out that in this stadium the seats, rather than being numbered from ‘a’ to ‘z’, were numbered in the opposite.
            Perplexed as to why this was, I searched for articles on the construction of this new stadium. In one article the stadium owner was questioned as to his decision to renumber the seating. He stated, “I wanted to turn the idea of hierarchical numbering on its head. In traditional seating arrangements, seats begin being numbered from ‘A-1’ and go back. But in MY stadium the ‘A-1’ seat is going to be last. Therefore, the first will be last, and the last will be first.”

            I searched the venue pricing guide, certain that I had still received a premium priced seat based on his reasoning. Turned out that the seats were still hierarchically priced, with floor seats priced significantly higher than balcony seats.


            Unfortunately, this parable, a modern reimagining of the parable of the wedding feast (Luke 14: 7-11), rings all too true in our current culture. We see a man who is excited to be the recipient of what he believes to be the best seat in the house. He excitedly enters the venue, only to learn to his chagrin that he has the least prestigious seat. In this there is nothing different from the interpretation of Christ to his story. In fact he said explicitly “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14: 8-11, ESV). The man in the stadium does, indeed, experience a bit of embarrassment at his fate when he is told to go to the least desirable seats by the guard. We can imagine that he had done no small bit of boasting to his friend on the way to the venue, and now he had to eat some crow as his friend was shown to a better seat than his.
            In fact, we see Jesus make this point in more than one place in the Bible. He tells his followers that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” after their encounter with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19: 16-30) and he reiterates this point later when he shares the parable of the vineyard laborers (Matthew 20: 1-16). Jesus makes it very clear that humility is a key to discipleship.
            Where this parable diverges from the biblical parables is in the motivations of the stadium owner. He states in his interview that he is renumbering the seats so that he can make the point that the “first will be last, and the last will be first.” Yet he maintains the common pricing structure of all stadium seating, that of making the seats closest to the stage the most expensive.
            His gesture, reversing seating numbers, is empty and meaningless without the attendant pricing structure. If he truly wanted to make a point, he would have made the “nosebleed seats” the most expensive. This would have really surprised and challenged guests when they entered his coliseum and learned that they had paid dearly for the least desirable seating. This would have truly made the last first and the first last.
            Many in today’s culture are ready to make the empty gesture, much of the time self-serving, but are unprepared to live the courage of their convictions. I am reminded of an exchange between a well-known political pundit and a student at a campus speech which was televised. the freshman, a reasonably intelligent young man, asks a pair of questions about white privilege and Islamic militancy arising as a reaction to American imperialism.
            When the pundit addresses the question of white privilege and how to address it, it becomes very apparent that the young man has no intention of giving up any of his comforts to address what he has claimed is one of the deepest sins of American culture. He is absolutely unwilling to personally surrender his own advantages as a gesture of leadership in this new “just” society he envisions to replace what he sees as an unjust and racist one.
            While I am not advocating a life of poverty, and I don’t believe Jesus is either, I am saying that empty gestures made simply to gain “street cred” with your peer group while having no intention of changing your own behavior is the opposite of what this series of passages advocates. Humility begins with a willingness to live by your own standards, and this is absent, by and large, from our current culture. A disciple of Christ must be willing to live by the words and practices of Christ, and this includes humility. If one is ready to live as Christ, one must be willing to “put his money where his mouth is” and live humbly.


Photo by Chaz McGregor on Unsplash