Solving Puzzles: Last? or First?

14th Sunday after Pentecost
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 20
for Sunday, September 18, 2011
lectionary focus: Matthew 20:1-16
prop: a jigsaw puzzle in the box unassembled

Today I brought a puzzle. My family likes jigsaw puzzles. Now when we get puzzles, do you think we go out and buy them already put together? No! The point is that we like to figure out which pieces goes where. We like to solve the puzzle. This game is fun because it makes us think, and work together as a team, and we have to look at the picture differently so that we can see how to match the pieces together in the best way to make sense of it. My family also likes word puzzles. We like to look at words that we put together in our language that really don’t seem like they should go together. Sometimes we see jumbo shrimp for sale. Jumbo means really big, and shrimp means really small. How can something really small be really big at the same time? Or something might happen and we say, “That’s pretty awful.” Pretty is a beautiful word. Awful is a ugly word. How can something be beautiful and ugly? Next week is my daughter’s birthday and on the day she was born, her father was holding her and he was crying. And I said, “Bill, you’re holding your baby daughter! You shouldn’t be crying; you should be happy!” And he said, “I’m crying because I am happy.”

Well, Jesus likes puzzles, too. In our Bible story today, Jesus is telling story puzzles to his friends. And He says this, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” You’ve all stood in line before: how can the last person be first and the first person be last? People have been trying to figure this one out since Jesus said it 2000 years ago. I wonder what it means to you today.

I think Jesus used story puzzles to teach because Jesus wants us to think. He wants us to work together as a team. He wants us to look at the problems in our lives in a different way so we can find the best way to solve them, the best way to make sense of them. Our lives are full of odd mysteries. And when we study the puzzles in the Bible, it makes understanding the puzzles in our lives easier. And when we think, and work together as a team, and look at things differently…solving problems can be fun.

Will you pray with me? (This is an echo prayer: you say a line and the children repeat it back.)

Dear Lord,
Thank You
for all the puzzles in life.
Help me
to enjoy solving them.


We are not Christians alone. My mission is to share, inspire, and encourage.

2 responses to “Solving Puzzles: Last? or First?

  1. Litotes: Not a bad place to read a children’s sermon….

    Okay, as I wrote this (bringing up an old joke between us…) I realized you were not invoking litotes but oxymorons. To clear that all up in my head I spent some time reading in (your favorite) Wikipedia on first litotes and then oxymorons.

    Wikipedia mentions that “apparent oxymorons” are “superficially juxtaposed in such a way that they are not contradictions. Examples include same difference, jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, and hot ice (where hot means stolen and ice means diamonds, respectively, in criminal argot.) Whether these may legitimately be called oxymorons is debatable.” I’m not sure I agree at ALL with that for the reasons you stated in your story. (And in an aside, I’ve been giggling to myself about the “humorous oxymoron” they listed: “Microsoft Works.” Any self-respecting citizen of the Nation of Apple will tell you that is certainly an oxymoron…)

    It goes on a bit later to say an oxymoron is by definition a contrast that is “surprisingly true; a paradox.”

    So of course I clicked on paradox, to find “A paradox is a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition.”

    Which led me right back to that whole “the last will be first, and the first will be last” thing.

    It’s an odd way to go about a meditation on a Biblical text, but depending on how your brain perceives language, it’s as good as any, I suppose.

    • Wow, Jill! What an exploration. But it goes well with our preacher’s sermon yesterday. She focused on forgiveness and when she came to the end of the Matthew text (18:34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”) introduced the idea of Christ using hyperbole! She told of her Aunt Loraine who would always threaten her teenage daughters that she would “rip off their arm and beat them about the head with the bloody stump.” She said it was always shocking to hear, but usually made everyone laugh and diffused a tense situation–all the while letting the daughters know that she was serious about her ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that.’ Preacher Debbie said that it makes sense that God could use such a means to let us all know that He is serious about forgiveness, and we better do it, or else.
      I realize that Jesus taught in great BIG metaphors that we call parables, but I guess I thought all the other literary devices weren’t invented until the printing press!
      This just rocks my world.

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