Our daughters were early swimmers. A pool near our home offered lessons to children, so we dutifully brought them each Saturday morning; soon enough they could splash the day away. One day when they were about five and seven, they decided to race across the pool. Our older daughter had a 22 month advantage in age and swimming lessons and therefore won rather easily. But our younger daughter had an ace up her sleeve. Buoyed by early religious education, as soon as our older daughter let out a taunting “I won”, our younger daughter retorted, “Yeah, but the last shall be first!”
Wow, I wasn’t sure swim racing was what Jesus had in mind, but it was hard to argue with that logic! Somehow I now felt better for everyone who has ever lost a race, gotten a bad grade, or just had a bad day.
In today’s Gospel we hear this famous line from Jesus: “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The passage is filled with scary warnings about how difficult it is to be saved. Many “will attempt to enter [the narrow gate] but will not be strong enough.” Many of us who have been working at our faith, works, spirituality, and religion for a long, long time will be told “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers” followed by “wailing and grinding of teeth.” Yikes.
Rather than get overly anxious about these images, I choose to accept the message as a wakeup call: “Don’t become complacent. You have a lot of work to do. The race isn’t over.” I need this message sometimes. I want to believe I’ve done enough to merit heaven. But then I have to remember I cannot merit heaven. I can never do or pray enough to deserve heaven. Ultimately we are talking about God’s grace, gift, unconditional love and forgiveness. I must not get complacent or feel entitled to salvation, but neither can I do enough to earn it. Some who might be last right now will end up in heaven long before me. And maybe God will grant me everlasting life despite my current sin and imperfections.
In the meantime, I somehow take solace in remembering my daughters in that swimming race. One won the race; the other won the verbal joust; I won by enjoying the moment.
One final thought: when I was a kid, I loved Halloween and trying to gather more candy than my sisters. This was one competition that somehow everyone seemed to win!
God who is love, bless us all this Halloween, however we celebrate this day and the next two holy days of All Saints and All Souls. If our children trick-or-treat, may they be safe and enjoy their candy whether first or last or somewhere in between. Amen.
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