A recurrent theme in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels is the so-called “upside-down kingdom”—the idea that the stations of human beings in the next world will be the reverse of what they are in this world. For example, in Luke 9 we read that “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest’” (vs. 46-48). And in Matthew 20:16 Jesus sums this up by saying “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
I have long wondered why God set it up this way. Why should the least here be the greatest in the kingdom of God? And for a long time my best answer was that there is a certain beauty in this—that God would choose this way of doing things for aesthetic reasons. Such irony, after all, makes for a more compelling artistic narrative, right? I still think this is true, but now I believe the fundamental reason is more straightforward. It has to do with our proper place as creations of God. In short, we were made to serve, to be God’s subjects. This is a fundamentally humble role, of course. And although plainly biblical, we are chafed by it because we are naturally prideful. (Even many Christian organizations which claim to emphasize servanthood only do so by using the term “servant” as an adjective describing “leadership,” a fact which shows just how problematic “servanthood” is from a marketing standpoint.).
Human beings, like all other beings in the universe, were created to serve God. And as rational, conscious beings, we were designed to choose to serve God. Such humility is, as I have argued in several places, our proper place and highest virtue (as indicated by the Kenosis passage in Phil. 2:5-11). To be among the least, in an intentional and voluntary way, is to demonstrate the will to serve, a desire to assume one’s proper place in a universe ruled by a sovereign God. In short, then, what I am proposing is that the reason for the “upside-down” kingdom, that the last will be first and the least will be greatest, is that choosing to serve effectively demonstrates the will to fulfill one’s created purpose, to do the job God made us to do. Such a commitment, therefore, isn’t just symbolically or metaphorically “great.” It really is true greatness.
The irony we see in this is only due to the fact that, as fallen human beings we are so disinclined to recognize our proper place of humble subjection to God. We have a natural, sinful tendency to want to be first and to have others serve us, not vice versa. And the overwhelming majority of human beings act accordingly. From such a perspective, Jesus’ teaching is strikingly paradoxical and counter-intuitive. But, again, if God is the sovereign ruler of the cosmos who has created all people to serve him, it’s not really paradoxical at all, nor should it be counter-intuitive to those who have embraced and fully interiorized his lordship. It is neither paradox nor even irony. It is just a basic fact of reality.