The Discipline of Simplicity is not just about how we think about the Kingdom of God, or how we approach things like worship and bible-study. It informs the very manner in which we live. The Kingdom of God, and thus our single-hearted focus on that Kingdom, reverses the ways and priorities of the kingdom of this world. The Good news is both radical and shocking for this very reason. In the book of Acts, Paul and his co-labourers were charged with “turning the world upside down.’ (17:1-9) Of course, the radicalness of the message did not originate with early church. Jesus himself continually turned the contemporary wisdom of the day on its head.
An example of this is Jesus’ often quoted statement in Matthew chapter 20. After telling a parable in which those hired for one hour of work are paid the exact amount as those hired for a full day, Jesus offers his ‘zinger’. “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (vs.16). This is repeated in the Gospel of Luke where the very same statement is found after a discussion regarding the ins and outs of salvation. (Luke 13:30)
Have you ever thought about what Jesus was speaking to? What does it mean to be ‘last’ in the kingdom of this world? What does it mean to shun the values and priorities of the world around us for the purpose of finding ourselves ‘first’ in the kingdom of heaven? These reflections should go beyond the mere theoretical theologizing. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus links the discipline of being last with practical matters of how we live our lives. It is about work, relationships, and life. The discipline of being last, then, must be rooted in the fabric of our everyday lives.
Like the contemporary society of Jesus’ own day, our world places value and worth on the backs of success and merit. If you do more you should earn more. Working harder than others should, in the long run, garner you more respect, honour, and social clout. Furthermore, the world around us tells us that our success and worth is seen in opposition to the success and merit of other people. Our value is not measured by our own ability or effort, but by the merits of other people.
It seems Life is more like ‘Survivor’ than we may realize. We all strive to be the head of the tribe; we wish to be the one who makes the decisions, the one who calls the shots. What is more, the kingdom of the world is built on the premises that there can be only one ‘winner.’ The goal of life, as depicted through commerce, advertising, and pop culture in general, is not so much keeping up with the Jones’, but having the Jones’ keep up with you. We buy the newest cell phone, tablet, or the latest techno-gizmo, not because we think that it will improve our lives, but because we want to be listed among those selected few who were ‘first’ to own a popular device. We keep our schedules busy because we associate busyness with importance – which has the added benefit of conveying the message that others should feel honoured that we have ‘fit’ them into our demanding life.
Attempting to be ‘last’ unlocks us from the constant struggle to get our own way, and the strive to be seen and recognized. We take the focus off of our selves and truly turn our attention to God’s holy presence.
How can you attempt to be ‘last’ as you live out your life this week? Here are a few suggestions.
Instead of attempting to pick the shortest check-out line, and then getting frustrated that you are being unduly delayed when it doesn’t move as fast as it ‘should’, pick the longest. Rejoice in the waiting. Put down the drive that says your need to move through line quickly is more important than someone else’s need to take their time. Recognize when you begin to overly criticize the people around you and ask Jesus to help you to see them in divine love.
If it is not a physical hardship for you, park your car at the back of a parking lot. This may seem overly simple but this stops us from the vain attempt to find the most convenient spot. If you do pass a spot close to front, try to see it not as a space that you ‘deserve’ but as one you can lovingly offer to someone else.
Enter conversations with the desire to spend more time listening to others than speaking your own mind. In her book ‘Abundant Simplicity’ Jan Johnson references a story told by N.T. Wright, in which the host of a party told his guests ‘Remember, the most interesting person in the room is the one you are sitting next to.’ Take time to learn about others and listen to their stories. Try not to interrupt them as they speak, and avoid offering own experiences as a commentary on theirs.
Practicing the discipline of being last is not about a negative look at our own worth or ability. This isn’t self-hatred or self-depreciation. The purpose is to shine a light upon the ways that our desire to be recognized, or to establish our own self-mastery, may cast a shadow over our desire for God’s kingdom. We also see the subtle ways in which we perceive our needs/wants as more important than the needs or wants of other people. This helps remain attentive to the influence our faith makes in our living, and allows us to remain focused on God’s kingdom.