“What can one give in exchange for one’s life.”
This question, which is found in both Matthew and Mark, immediately
follows Jesus’ response to Peter, who, recognizing Jesus as
the promised king who would restore Israel, urges Him not to go
up to Jerusalem and put himself in danger. Jesus’ saying has
to be seen in that context in order to be rightly understood. Otherwise
the phrases “take up his cross”, “renounce himself”,
and the paradox about losing one’s life in order to save it,
are likely to be taken as a general counsel mainly to self-denial
or asceticism. Self-control is obviously a good thing, but it is
not an end in itself. Its focus remains, satisfyingly, one’s
self. Jesus’ focus here is mission – doing His Father’s
will and accepting whatever may be the consequences.
Self-protection, which is a natural enough instinct, too easily
morphs into self-aggrandizement (“gaining the whole world”).
The verb “exchange” in Jesus’ question is the
Greek word for “ransom” – the buying back of someone
held captive. We are all captives of our desires, our possessions,
our culture, and perhaps most importantly, our self-esteem. If we
are to follow Jesus, as in the opening phrase in today’s reading,
we have to understand that it is his work he is referring to, not
his self-discipline. Jesus is the exemplar of authentic human life
– a life totally other-directed, totally self-giving, totally
focused on doing His Father’s will, i.e., calling people to
true life, a life modeled on His own total self-giving.
Carrying the cross (through the streets of the city) was a part
of the Roman method of execution precisely because it shamed the
condemned criminal. Following Jesus – i.e., doing his work
in today’s world – may not bring us actual crucifixion,
but it is likely to bring us embarrassment and loss of esteem –
something we try to avoid at all costs. To be held in high esteem
by the world may be, for many of us today, what “gaining the
whole world” means.
A focus primarily on one’s own salvation is not the way to
be saved, for it is precisely our self-interest that stands between
us and real life.