Finding and Losing Life by John Shea
Matthew 16: 21-28
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.
We are not told exactly how Jesus explained this upcoming scenario of suffering, death, and resurrection. It seems his suffering and his death would be the work of the religious leadership who are situated in Jerusalem. It is assumed his resurrection on the third day would be the work of God.
Yet the prediction is not presented as a divided series of events, suffering and death under the control of elders, chief priests, and scribes and resurrection under the control of God. Rather the whole plan is enacted under a “must” — must go, must suffer, must be killed, and must be raised. Rejection and resurrection are interlocking parts in a bigger picture that provides the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ identity and mission.
However, this bigger picture is not spelled out. Its inner logic is not unfolded. Jesus may have explained it further. But if he did, it was unpersuasive to the leader of the disciples who had just confessed him as the “Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Whatever Jesus said, it seems Peter heard nothing but to suffer and die. This is so outside his way of thinking that he is compelled to take on the role of the master, taking Jesus aside and setting him straight. He speaks the sentiments of conventional religiosity. He wants God to forbid the suffering and death of Jesus. Ironically, even as he rebukes Jesus with this thought, he calls him “Lord.”
The turning of Jesus to Peter symbolizes a completely different way of thinking. Jesus thinks the rock that is the foundation of his church has become a rock that is a stumbling block, an obstacle. He must get back into a proper following of Jesus. He must submit himself to Jesus’ leadership and struggle to understand what Jesus has predicted. The way he thinks is an ordinary way of thinking. It is how humans put things together. But it is not how humans in touch with God put things together. This is what Peter must learn.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
Following Jesus demands a new way of thinking, a way of thinking that goes against conventional, culturally approved thought forms. People who have internalized these thought forms and identified with them will have to deny themselves. These thought forms have to do with the avoidance of suffering and death at all costs and the imploring of God to help in this enterprise of preserving physical life in its present form. These dominant thought forms have to be replaced by an alternate way of thinking.
This new way of thinking emphasizes the doing of God’s will no matter what the consequences. In a world diametrically opposed to God’s will, those consequences include suffering and death, but also resurrection. The disciples are not to grudgingly endure this situation; they are to lean into it. This means taking up their cross, not having it put on them. If they understand and do this, it will be a path of transformation for others and the path of resurrection for themselves.
Jesus tries to help them understand that this following of him that looks like loss is really gain. If they try to hold onto to their present life in its temporary security and social position, they will do this by not opening to and enacting a deeper life. In particular, they will bend to the oppression of the civil and religious authorities because they fear reprisals. They will save the present way they are living at the expense of God’s life that is coming to birth in them. If they let go of this present way of life, they will find this deeper divine life.
Since this deeper divine life is what is most valuable, it would do them little good to gain the whole world. The whole earthly world is still on a lesser level than the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is offering. There can be no trade-off. The following of Jesus will entail sacrifice, but it is a rational sacrifice based on a hierarchy of values.
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct. Truly, I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
There is always the ultimate context to consider. When all is said and done, the Son of Man will come and repay everyone in accordance with how they have responded to Jesus’ offer of a new humanity. This scene of the Son of Man, angels, the Father’s glory, and repayment symbolizes the theological insight that the appropriateness of any action is only known in the light of the whole. The ongoing events of history do not judge themselves. Their value is only known in the light of the culmination of history. The end of history judges history, and the end of history belongs to the Son of Man and the new humanity who follow him.
Finding and Losing Life
It is a sad but predictable fact that those who stand up get knocked down. Whistle blowers are a prime example. A cop reports that other cops are abusing suspects. He is shunned, and punished in very clever and often violent ways. A woman reports accounting abuses in a large corporation. Her boss thanks her and comments on her courage. Within a week she is downsized for no apparent reason. A priest reports another priest for sexual abuse. The Bishop tells him it will be taken care of. Instead, he is taken care of and sent to an out-the-way assignment. Criticism and cover up go together, and part of the cover up is to eliminate the criticism.
Jesus was a fierce critic. He pointed out the thoroughgoing hypocrisy of religious leadership. They were taken up with their own importance, loving the trappings of their position rather than its substance. They loved money, elaborate robes, the first places at table, salutations in the marketplace, and being called teacher. Image was everything. They polished the outside of the cup and were concerned about weighing the mint and the herb. They kept people from the knowledge that would help them, laid burdens on them, and watched them falter. Jesus saw clearly the organizational abuse and, prophet that he was, he blew the whistle.
Therefore, Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death was not a supernatural vision of the future. It was rooted in the amply documented tendency of those in power to eliminate those who question it. Also, those today who stand against organizations, governments, and institutions and call into question their unethical practices know reprisal is their fate. The rhetoric may be that criticism is welcomed. But the reality is that anyone who questions the status quo will be treated harshly by those benefiting from status quo.
Often this comes down to being attacked with the very practices they are criticizing. If they are pointing to financial abuse, they will be stripped of work and money. If they are pointing to physical abuse, they will be beaten. When leadership does not know what to do, it does what it knows best. What it knows best is punishing dissent and covering-up.
Why do people do it then?
There are as many reasons as they are people and groups who have walked this lonely path of confrontation. Some say, “I just couldn’t let it go on” or “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something” or “This was once a great company, church, organization, or government and it means something to me.”
The reason given in the Gospel is that the deeper life of God depends on it. There is a deeper life of God in us, and this life is nurtured by expressing it in the face the myriad situations we encounter. If this life is silenced, especially if it is silenced because we are afraid that its expression will mean we will lose our surface life, than this most valuable life is lost. The paradox is that by our silence we have gained some significant footing in the world, but we have lost our soul. As in the Esau and Jacob story, we have sold our birthright for a pot of porridge. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More sees that the man who has perjured himself is wearing a chain of office for Wales. It is his reward for his lying. Thomas More says to him, “Richard it does not profit a man to lose his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?”
It is difficult to grasp how spiritually momentous not speaking out is. Ordinary consciousness thinks it is an ethical option. After all, it is not something we are doing. It is something we are not doing. At best, it is a sin of omission. Some may think it is important to confront what is happening. If it is “their thing,” fine. Others may have different business to conduct. In A Man for All Season Thomas More also says, “Our natural path lies in escaping.” This is a piece of advice well worth heeding.
However, the Gospels are not that blasé. They think our soul is at stake. So they encourage freely shouldering the cross. The cross is merely what happens to those who persist in righteousness in an unrighteous world. Every time the cross happens, and it happens daily, a double revelation unfolds. Divine love in some finite human person shines forth and human resistance in some hardened persons is seen for what it is. The cross is the symbol of the standoff between divine love and human recalcitrance.
This dangerous possibility of discipleship so terrifies us we immediately plead for reprieve. Jesus must take us aside as he took aside Peter. He must explain to us once again how this is necessary, how this is a “must.” Given who God is and who we are, it cannot be any other way. And it is only a seeming terror, for this is the path of finding the deeper life that sustains us. But Jesus the teacher must continue and slowly get us back into his following. He must tell us about the word we cannot hear, the word at the end that was lost because our hearts were pounding at suffering and death, the mysterious word – resurrection.