Tuesday, 20 September 2011

"What shall it profit a man?"

I was generally a bit lukewarm about John Dickson's A Spectator's Guide to Jesus.  However, he did say something at got my attention.

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" is one of those biblical phrases that has made its way into our wider culture.  This means that it is often taken out of its context, even by Christians.  Whenever I have heard a sermon or a discussion on this verse, it is taken to mean something like, "what's the point of riches and power if you are going to end up in hell?  It's better to believe in Jesus even if that means giving up these things."  There is of course a certain amount of truth in this but there is much more to the story than that.

Here is the full passage it comes from, Mark 8:27-38 taken from the New International Version rather than the King James that you will most often hear quoted or misquoted.

27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

The Messiah or "anointed one", as understood by Peter and other first century Jews, was the promised descendent of King David, the new king who would rid the people of Israel of their foreign oppressors on the way to establishing his rule over all the nations.  The Messianic dream was a dream of world domination.  This is what Peter and the other disciples, and many in the crowd, either believed he was, or hoped he would become.

Jesus was very wary of this title, and you can see that here as he instructs his disciples not to talk about it.  This is not, as Stephan Huller likes to think, because he didn't claim to be the Messiah.  There were times when he clearly did.  Rather, it is because he believed those around him seriously misunderstood what a messiah would do. 

This is what lay behind both his sharp rebuke of Peter - "Get behind me, Satan!" - and his teaching to the crowd.  His followers had to be prepared to suffer, even to die a shameful death.  There would be no world domination under the Messiah Jesus, only death and shame.

This is the context in which he asked his rhetorical question: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  When he says "gain the whole world" he is not speaking metaphorically, he is speaking literally.  His central message to Israel was one of repentance.  They needed to set aside their hypocrisy, their exclusion of women, the poor and the "unclean", their hatred of Gentiles, their focus on appearance rather than substance.  What would be the point of a military campaign to dominate the world if those who dominated in God's name were no better than those who did so in Caesar's?

For me, this underlines the irony of subsequent events in church and world history.  In the first three centuries after Christ the church grew in the face of persecution and suffering.  The followers of Jesus did indeed literally have to take up their crosses.  Then Constantine changed the game by co-opting the church into his empire.  He waged war under the sign of the cross.  His successors made Christianity the official religion of their regime.  For the next fifteen centuries church and state went hand in hand throughout Europe.  Wars were waged in the name of the Prince of Peace, dissenters were tortured in the chambers of the Inquisition, popes made and broke kings for entirely political purposes. 

Christians gained the world.  But what happened to our souls?

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