Nobody wants to be last or least. Of course not. We'll miss the flight, we'll get stepped on, the rewards will run out before we get there. So what was Jesus talking about when he said that the last will be first, and why does he accord such honor to "the least of these"? He calls them his brothers. He says that the door to his kingdom will open to the people who spend time with them, even if – especially if – they don't realize they are doing anything. Just offering a glass of water. Just sitting there, holding a hand, because nothing else helpful comes to mind.
If Jesus's kingdom is truly a kingdom of justice, then words like "last" and "least" and "little ones" don't actually exist there. He's talking the language of our sad world, pointing out the position we relegate to people we see as unimportant. But he also says his kingdom is not a faraway domain of future happiness for good people. It's a real, boots-on-the-ground, right-now kingdom, happening around us. What if "the least" are actually powerful commandos making inroads for their leader, deep into enemy territory? I think they are.
My brother was one of them. He spent his whole life explaining the upside-down truths of God's justice to the rest of us slower souls. Sometimes he had to shout in order to cut through the static. Which is amazing, considering he never spoke a word. He could laugh, cry, shout. But he could also be so silent that he gave other people the chance to finally hear their own consciences.
Duane was born healthy, but when he was three months old, he was attacked by his first grand mal seizure, with countless to follow. I say attacked because they were vicious, painful to witness, and never got easier to see. Diagnosed with a rare form of infantile epilepsy, he was given a year to live by the worried doctors who attended him. With the severe brain damage he sustained, he was never able to walk, talk, play football, hold his own in clever repartee, start a business, tour the world, you fill in the blank. He was never the first or the greatest, measured by the yardstick of success – or even a predictable set of capabilities.
Nobody knows how much Duane could understand. Once some neurologists gave him an aptitude test, and when he showed no interest in differentiating a red square from a yellow triangle, the results came back: he has the cognizance of a three-month-old. We laughed. How could they possibly know how much was going on in there? If you threw a joke at him, a laugh would often bounce back to you. Other times, nothing. How to measure intelligence in someone so full of life, yet someone whose constant seizures (some too small to see) played havoc with his memory and situational awareness?
Each of us siblings had our moment to realize that it didn't matter what he knew or didn't know. As kids, we had prayed countless confident prayers for miraculous healing, sure that the next morning he'd be running out of his room to meet us. But sooner or later, the thought caught up with each of us. He isn't broken. He doesn't need fixing. D is D, and he's here, as he is, for a reason. If we don't understand it, that's our issue, not his.
Last November, on the day of his funeral, we found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder around him, in a pattern we had adopted over years: D as the hub, we as the spokes. This time, though, no laughter bounced back. We looked down at his calm, still face in the simple pine casket, and marveled at the 31 years of intense and powerful living that D had crowded into his life. And the people – the hundreds of people he had collected who made the circle of his family so immeasurably wide.
Duane operated by guidelines that ran slap in the face of 21st-Century sense. It really was as if he were a spy behind enemy lines, except he wasn't very sneaky about it. He followed his commander's instructions, and they didn't line up at all with the law of the territory he had landed in. How could they? Such statutes do not translate into guidebooks that are full of tabs like "Getting Ahead," "Becoming the Life of the Party," "Protecting your Independence," "Getting Even." Can you put that together with a life of total dependence, total trust, total forgiveness, and total love? It doesn't compute.
I think D made it his business, consciously or not, to shred a lot of the myths we like to hold dear, those self-help guidelines and rules of popular wisdom with which we face the world we live in. They all seem logical and appear to be mandatory, as they quietly drag us down under an intolerable burden of self. I can't think of half of them. Any of you who knows Duane (or any other myth-breaker) please add more myths to the list. But here's a beginning.
Next article in this series: Lessons from Duane.