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Twenty-First Sunday of the Year

The First and the Last

Many years ago I was in conversation with a young Muslim student. He was explaining to me that, if I died without confessing belief in Allah and belief that Muhammad was his prophet, I could not get into heaven. He also said that if he had not done his best to explain this to me he could not get to heaven either. However, he had tried his best and felt assured of a place in heaven, even if I was still not convinced.

The discussion went on until the early hours of the morning and I felt I had to get to bed. 'We can carry on this conversation another time,' I said and then added rather flippantly, 'perhaps in heaven.' 'Unfortunately not,' he replied, as he didn't expect that I would be there!

The fact that the young man in question was a Muslim is not really relevant. He was certainly not representative of many of the Muslims I know. But I also know Christians who would not expect me as a Catholic priest to be welcomed in heaven, although they might not be so open about saying it. Even some Catholics think that I question too much to be assured of my place in the next world. But in spite of that I still hope to surprise them all.

So when Jesus talks about the first being last and the last being first, he seems to be warning us about how misguided our expectations can be. This is a theme that is central to St Luke's thinking. His Gospel is full of stories people who had been written off finding acceptance with Jesus, of sinners being welcomed, of the lost being found.

In the story of Zacchaeus we read about Jesus saying, 'The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.' We read of the lost, or 'prodigal', son being welcomed back as if from the dead. We read of the joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. In fact one young man who was studying Luke's Gospel for A level said, 'In Luke, if you're not lost, you don't stand a chance!'

So perhaps we should not be too discouraged at the times when we are acutely conscious of the things we have got wrong. After all it was only when he was conscious of what a mess his life was in that the prodigal son was ready to be helped by his father. The awareness of our faults may be our greatest strength just as being blind to our faults can be our greatest danger.

Writing to the people of Corinth St Paul said,

I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me … for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

I don't think Paul was simply talking about physical weakness. He was also aware of getting things wrong, of upsetting people, even of doing things to prevent the spread of the Gospel. But he still believed that those were the occasions when God took over and worked in him, doing what he could not do himself.

In the sermon on the mount St Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, 'Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.' That could be translated as 'do not pass judgement on', or 'do not condemn'. We are not really in a position to condemn other people or make decisions about whether they will get to heaven.

But equally we should not be too quick to condemn ourselves. When we are conscious of and upset about the things that we are getting wrong, we can count ourselves among the 'lost' of Luke's Gospel and that is when we have a chance. That is when we are more likely to accept help, help from other people, help and forgiveness from God.

I know I am far from perfect but when the time comes I hope to be pleasantly surprised at finding myself in heaven rather than in hell. I can certainly expect to be surprised at some of the people I meet in heaven. So, see you there!

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