Jesus' Passion and Ours: Reflections on Matthew 16:21-28

This saying about finding and losing represents Jesus' risky subversive wisdom. He talked when he should have kept quiet. He offended powerful people he should have cultivated. He cultivated powerless people who could do nothing to advance his career. He gave up the emotional and physical comforts of home to live an insecure, itinerant existence, in which he had nowhere to lay his head (8:20). The traditional wisdom echoed our secular saying "Finders keepers, losers weepers." Jesus' version was "Finders weepers, Losers keepers!"

For Jesus, this risky life that culminated in the cross was a choice made out of commitment to his convictions about God's mission for him. As his ministry progressed and opposition to his teaching grew, Jesus came to suspect that his opponents would not let him live. The predictions of his death to his disciples, which occur several times throughout the gospel, indicate both his growing foreboding and determination. Jesus, knowing what awaited him in Jerusalem, continued to journey toward it. Why?

As a human being, Jesus had a choice: to accept the sacrifice of the cross or to avoid it. Jesus chose to risk the cross, not out of a life-denying asceticism that elevates self-denial for its own sake. Nor did he eagerly seek death out of a desire for martyrdom that would assure him the admiration of future generations. Nor did he believe God wanted to punish him, or that being abused by others is inherently a good thing.

He accepted it out of his radical love for God and for human beings. Having been courageous and outspoken in his convictions throughout his life, he saw no other path of integrity but to continue his race of faith into the Valley of the Shadow of death.

Misunderstandings of the Cross and Self-Denial
It is easy to misunderstand why Jesus underwent the pain and humiliation of the cross. It is also easy to misunderstand what a cross is in our lives and what it means to deny ourselves and take up a cross. Too often the cross has been defined as oppression by others. Women in situations of domestic violence who have gone to their pastors for advice have been wrongly assured, "It's your cross, sister. You must bear it, because it's your cross." Slaves were told by white preachers that slavery was the cross the Lord wanted them to bear.

Too often the cross is defined as an everyday nuisance that we all have to put up with. We have heard people say things like "this hour commute to work is my cross to bear." "Or this weeding is my cross to bear for having a garden." Such a misunderstanding trivializes Jesus' teaching beyond recognition.

Just as it is easy to misinterpret what a cross is, it is easy to misunderstand what it means to deny ourselves. Too often in the history of Christianity we have been taught that denying ourselves means condemning the body and its appetites. Based on a false separation of body and spirit, this condemnation can lead to extremes of asceticism that harm our physical health or to the denigration of God's good gift of sexuality. This runs directly counter to the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures that God created the world and human beings and called both good.

Another misunderstanding of denying ourselves is that it means not pursuing any dreams or talents that bring us pleasure in life. If you love acting, you must become a lawyer. This misunderstanding of self-denial is summed up in the tongue in cheek (!) dieter's dictum: "If it tastes good, spit it out."

Another misunderstanding of self-denial is that it means automatically subordinating our needs and dreams to those of others. Theologians in recent years have pointed out that what keeps many women from fully and joyfully serving God is not the traditional notion of pride or the overblown self. Rather, many women suffer from an underdeveloped sense of self, a lack of confidence in the talents God is calling us to use. For a number of reasons, many women feel guilty setting boundaries that allow them time and energy to be good stewards of their mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Instead we allow the demands of others to consistently cross the line with the result that we are diminished as children of God, and our contributions to God's kingdom are truncated.

For both men and women, Jesus' teachings in verses 24-26, properly understood, call not for self-effacement, but for affirmation of oneself as a child of God. We must set this saying in the context of Jesus' command about loving others. He does not say, thou shalt love others and not thyself, but, rather, that we are to love others as we love ourselves (Mt. 22:39). There will come times, of course, when in choosing to follow Christ, we risk the loss of a stable life in familiar surrounding, of relationships, career advancement, the approval of others, and material comforts.

We may be lonely, disapproved of, frightened, and threatened. But we must be clear, as Jesus was, that we risk these losses out of radical love for God, and not out of a deep-seated hatred for ourselves.

Chapter 16 of Matthew invites us to view Peter's confession and commissioning as our own and to follow Jesus on his path of suffering and triumph. Here is the question we now have to answer: Given what we know about the One who calls us to follow, will we follow?

8/21/2011 4:00:00 AM