Our culture lives out a interesting interpretation of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Despite the most coveted job in any elementary school being that of line leader, by the time we reach adulthood, something switches, and somehow, being in the tail end of a procession becomes the place of honor. The picture above was my view from the tail end of the procession at the 10 o’clock service yesterday. Led by the cross, the symbol of Christ’s passion and our salvation, flanked by two candles, which remind us that the light of Christ is present whenever two or three are gathered, the choir, server, the Gospel bearer, Eucharistic minister, ministry intern, two deacons, and myself paraded into the chancel as we began our worship of God. As the Celebrant, my place was at the tail end of the line. In the academy, this “pride of place” often goes to professors with the longest tenure and then Deans. At a wedding, the bride takes up the rear of the procession. So often, it seems that we would honor those who bring up the rear.
As I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, I couldn’t help but think that, my place in the end of the line isn’t the place of honor, but really is the right place for me to be. As part of his ongoing back and forth with the religious leadership, Jesus offers something of a riddle to his interlocutors. After they answer correctly, or so Matthew would lead us to believe (but that’s for another post), Jesus sums up his teaching with these words, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
I’m not sure why, but I felt led to look into the words that are translated as “are going… ahead.” It turns out it is one word, proagousin. The primary Strong’s definition for this word is stronger than “to go ahead,” being rendered as “to lead forward.” My mind immediately went back to that procession yesterday, the letters that precede and follow my name, and the reality that in that procession, I was being led into the kingdom of God by children, by sinners, by gentiles, and by the grace of God. Those who lead the procession into the Kingdom of Heaven have the pride of place because they are the ones who recognize, most fully, their need for forgiveness. Those of us who are professional ministers can often forget that we aren’t the sum total of the compliments we hear in the receiving line. Rather, our place at the tail end of the procession is often the result of our own failure to remember that it is only by the grace of God that we are in the lineup at all.