Several years ago, when I was traveling a lot, I often visited some friends in LA, and they would take me out for a meal. On one trip, it was a weekend, and the restaurant was crowded. The greeter told my friend that we would have to wait 30 minutes before she could find a table for us. After a few minutes, my friend went to her and asked where we were on the list of people waiting to be seated. She showed him the sheet, and we were near the bottom. My friend, ever enterprising, asked, “Where would we be on the list if I gave you ten dollars?” “Why sir,” she replied, “You would be right up here on top.”
There are different ways to make sure you, your children, your family, or your friends are on top. However, recently the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action, defined as “the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups regarded as disadvantaged or subject to discrimination.” It was a way of making sure that, despite their ethnicity and background, certain potential college students were the first ones considered for admission. The practice has now been deemed unlawful by the Court and the decision has brought up other problems of who should be first in line for admission to the ivy league schools, in particular.
It is well known that there are also “legacy” admissions to prestigious schools, where children of generous benefactors to the college or university get in line ahead of others. For example, in a study of thirty elite colleges “primary legacy students are an astonishing 45% more likely to get into a highly selective college or university than a non-legacy.” Just like with my friend at the restaurant, money “talks,” and there ae a lot of colleges that listen.
It is not like that in every culture. I once heard a supposedly humorous story of an American man in London who stopped on the sidewalk to straighten some packages he was carrying. When he did, 10 Brits lined up behind him. They did not break rank--he had been first in line.
There are surprising stories in the Bible about who will be first and who will be last. In Matthew 19. 30, Jesus warns that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” That seems anti-American, but it is born out in other instances. For example, as recorded in Mark 9.35, Jesus called the disciples, who had been arguing about who was the “best” and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Another example is the parable of the workers in Matthew 20.8. The owner of a vineyard needed laborers, so he would go to the usual marketplace to find them. He found several additional workers over the course of the day and therefore some of them worked longer hours than others. When it came time to pay them, those who worked the longest assumed they would get more pay than those who were recently hired. Instead, the owner of the vineyard paid them all the same. The “first in line” did not get additional pay. That would be unusual and difficult to accept in many cultures, but the parable is about the grace of God and there is no way to work harder than someone else for it and therefore get in line first. It cannot be bought.
We humans want recognition and, on the earth, medals and trophies are given to those who come in first. But is that how it will be at the judgment? In the story from Matthew 7.21-23, Jesus says that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven who thinks they should, but “only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” There will be many who prophesied in his name, even driving out demons and performing miracles, who will be told, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” They thought they would be admitted first but will not even enter the Kingdom.
St. Paul was called by Jesus in a special vision, and he took the Gospel to the Gentiles, in particular. But that is not what he bragged about. If he was the first of anything, in his opinion it was himself as a sinner. We read in 1 Timothy 1.15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst,” in some translations he is described as the “chief of sinners.”
We might like to think of ourselves as “not so bad,” but Paul puts himself as first in the line of sinners. That is not a good line to be in, but we were there until Christ, as the firstborn, moved us out of the line. And why did he do this? As Paul reminds us, “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
I want to be first in line to show my love and gratitude to Christ for what he has done for me.