In Matthew’s Gospel, right before the transfiguration event, Jesus had been showing his disciples that he “must” go to Jerusalem and “suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day raised (Matt. 16:21).” Peter has a slip up from building block to stumbling block. Then Jesus followed all that with the emphatic statement that “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” In the shadow of that challenge Jesus asked two questions: 1) What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life (soul)? And 2) What shall a man give in return (exchange) for his life (soul)? Two questions claiming the same emphasis that put the disciples in a position of realizing what was at stake when it came to being a follower/learner of the Christ.
The fact that Jesus did not wait for an answer tends to imply that the questions were more rhetorical than anything. Questions that simply drove home a point regarding sacrifice and commitment. However, when i read the questions, I ask myself, “What would I say?”
How would you answer the question – “What would you give in exchange for your soul?” I suspect that most would pull the salvific trump card and say, “Nothing is worth having in exchange for the eternal destiny of my soul.” However, I am tempted to believe that there are some things that one might surely consider; a fulfilling career, a secure financial future, having a son or daughter “redeemed” from drugs or alcohol, saving the life of a child sick with cancer, a contented heart (yes, possible even outside of salvation), a balanced sense of self-worth, and the list could go on. The truth is, many people make that exchange every day, both inside and outside the Christian community. It is not always confessed or even dressed in the terms described above, nevertheless there are exchanges going on every day.
The focus of Jesus’ question is not so much one of giving up being “born again” in order to have some transitory or fleeting moment of pleasure. It seems the issue is centered around what type of life a person will choose? Not a moment-in-time decision, but a life-choice. Will we choose to be a follower/learner of the Christ, or simply make a confession of faith and then select an alternate lifestyle? Its all an issue of priority, if you please.
The point Christ was driving home to his disciples was the choice of the cross. For Christ, that meant a real physical and painful death. For his disciples, hearing the challenge to deny oneself and pick up their personal cross and follow Christ must have struck a sense of disharmony in their heart. Losing, gaining, forfeiting, fulfilling, how can any of it make sense?
There is some sense where perhaps the original twelve disciples were uniquely positioned to face the challenges of basic needs in light of the cross. Situated in such a way that leaving their “nets” seemed to be no real sacrifice compared to what lie ahead. Assuming they had an inkling of what lie ahead. However, most of us are not that committed – if we were candid about it. Few of us are like Abraham and willing to put ourselves in a position of “going without knowing” and more like Esau who was willing to sell his birthright for a cheeseburger and fries.
In the world of psychology and sociology there is a paradigm often referred to when attempting to explain people’s basic motivations. It is called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The theory sits on a fairly basic principle – we must meet certain needs; physiological, safety, social/love, and esteem, before we can achieve self-actualization – our fullest potential. For example, you may have heard someone say, “I would give anything for a good steak right now.” That would be an expression that describes an appeal to physiological needs. Or, a single mother consumed with the safety of her children, finds it almost impossible to concentrate on her job or build any type of social network.
I don’t know that Maslow’s theory is correct. In some fashion I suspect it is. Our primitive nature and basic needs often trumps our spiritual nature. The growling of our stomach can often drown out the prayers of our heart. The social network of a church community is often more essential to us than the spiritual act of worship. We exchange “fellowship” for a firm knowledge of God’s word, because we think if we don’t give people that “connection” they won’t feel like their needs are being met.
At every level of our life we are faced with the question, “What shall a man give in exchange for his life/soul?” If you are like me, it may be hard to articulate an answer. In fact, I am not certain I can answer the question – even on a personal level. Although I think about it often.