First published in the Guardian, October 15, 2016, by Archdeacon John Clarke (Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Charlottetown)
Dividing up in teams in the playground was, for many of us, a moment of great anxiety. Not everyone can be first, but you sure didn’t want to be picked last. Competition has its place in the world, I guess, but maybe something other than being first can guide us. In the playground and the world, competition and division can give way to compassion. Compassion isn’t just about feeling sympathy or pity for someone else; it is also about being moved to action to relieve the sufferings and misfortune of others.
It is evident throughout scripture, that God favours the weak and lonely. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (NRSV 19.30) This comes at the end of a teaching about what the rich and powerful must do to find favour with God. The followers of Jesus just asked, if not the rich, then who can be saved? At the time, people would have generally thought that the rich must already be in God’s favour with the evidence being that they are rich. Jesus uses a powerful metaphor, essentially saying that at the end of it all, things as we know them will be turned on their heads.
Jesus isn’t asking us to wait for the end and God will make things right. This kind of thinking makes little sense when Jesus just affirmed the following of the Commandments. It is more likely that Jesus wants us to act as if God’s realm is already in place. This means to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
But for some reason, many years after we’ve left our childhood playgrounds, we still divide and compete as if our eternal salvation depends upon it. Despite the fact that the Bible teaches that salvation depends entirely upon the grace of God.
No amount of wealth can buy salvation. People can’t earn salvation, but scripture is filled with warnings, particularly to the rich, that salvation can be lost. And there’s enough salvation to go around. It is not in limited supply.
In our playground there was one boy who was never chosen. It was not that he was chosen last, he simply was never chosen. Eventually, he made it easier for everyone by not even trying to play. He went off by himself and didn’t play in our games. We knew it was wrong. We knew that he should have been allowed to play. I suppose that the teachers knew what was going on, but this boy’s decision to act as if he didn’t want to play seemed to solve the problem. The rest of us managed to avoid the problem rather than find a solution.
When Jesus says, “the last will be first…” it’s hardly a solution to this boy’s problem, but when people begin living as if the last will be first, then things change. The teachers, the captains choosing sides, and the players who want to be picked needed to change their outlook and seek fairness for everyone. That play ground is a lot like the world; political, religious, educational and business leaders need to work towards fairness for everyone.
Another word for fairness is justice. For people of faith, the world is not about being first, it is about all of us crossing the finish line together. Salvation, after all, is not about “while supplies last.” There is enough for everyone.
The compassionate role of the Church is about helping people begin, continue or renew a relationship with God. Find a place of worship that suits you.