Finding and losing life
"Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10: 39)
What did Jesus mean? How can we find life when we lose it? And how can we lose a life by finding it? This is one of the great Christian paradoxes. What is the center of it? Before we consider this, let me recount a story.
Once a rich person wanted to install a plaque in a prominent church in memory of his departed daughter. But the congregation of that church opposed his wish because his daughter never worshipped in that church. The rich man threatened the congregation and said “If you don’t allow me to place this plaque I won't give a single cent to the church.” Gifts of money from this rich man were very important as the church needed a great deal for the renovation of the building. But the congregation took a bold step. They said that they didn't want his money, and with a lot of effort, they were able to finish the renovation of their church.
It was suggested that they should put up a plaque in memory of someone who had done a memorable service to the church. People came forward with various proposals. After much discussion, one person came up with a suggestion that surprised them all. This was to honor the name of a poor humble sexton who had been sweeping and cleaning the church for fifty years. There was silence for a few seconds. Then a senior member of the church got up and agreed with the suggestion, and gradually, one by one, the whole congregation agreed to acknowledge the work of a man who was not dead but still living. The rich person who wanted to exalt himself was humbled and the work of the humble man who never wanted glory was appreciated and recognized.
The central point of this story is selfishness and self-centeredness. In whatever we may say, think or do there is at least an element of selfishness, pride, and self-centeredness. This is often the root cause of big problems in our society. As humans, we find it difficult to exist without putting “I” in the center. This is the biggest of sins because it breaks our relationship with our fellow humans and with God. Here the very word Sin is symbolic because it has the letter I in the center. What is the Christian answer to this, if we are to make Christianity the center of our life?
Think of our relationship with God as vertical and our relationship with our fellow beings as horizontal. When we put vertical and horizontal lines together we get a cross. And here we find the meaning of the cross. That’s why it is said in today’s gospel that anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Jesus is not worthy of him. Jesus also expressed the same truth when he gave us his two commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In explaining the meaning of the cross, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, John Macquarrie, said that Jesus defeated the ultimate idol, which is the Self on the Cross. If we are to find our life it is essential to defeat this idol, which is the Self. This is explained in the agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane where he prayed and said to God “Father take this cup away from me” and then “ But not my will but you're will be done”. At that point as a human being, he had to wrestle with himself. Ultimately he defeated this idol on the cross.
With the modern rise of individualism, this problem of Self has twisted the basic principles of the Christian faith. Some Christians have been trying to interpret salvation or liberation from a very personal and individualistic perspective. In the Bible, we see how we have been liberated in relation to God and our fellow human beings. We begin to understand why Jesus advised the rich young man to sell all that he had and give to the poor and follow him.
Today many Christians try to think of salvation as a vertical relationship with God. But this cannot represent the Cross until we have the right horizontal relationship with our brothers and sisters. Human salvation depends on the place where God and humans meet - on the cross.
The real meaning of the cross enables us to find the true meaning of life. The cross teaches us that until we learn the art of reducing our selfishness we will not find the true meaning of life.
I believe that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”