And so Mark brings us through chapters 7 and 8 (see the previous blog post) to this defining statement of the ministry of Jesus:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life …. will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed what can they give in return for their life?”
I hesitate to add to the torrent of words that has been unleashed over the centuries by this brief statement. It has caused so much pain – I would say unnecessary pain; so much misunderstanding, as indeed Mark has been warning us with the stories he has placed before it in chapters 7 and 8.
Let’s begin with a couple of preliminary points.
First, verses 35/35 use the word ‘life. I prefer the New English Bible here (in spite of its sexist language) because it uses ‘true self’ instead of ‘life’:
“Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the Gospel, that man is safe. What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?”
Secondly, I would guess that most 21st century Christians no longer think these verses are promoting the idea that it is good to suffer here on earth for the sake of a heavenly reward hereafter when the injustices of this life will be reversed; surely a view repugnant to everyone except suicide bombers?
There are two ways of thinking about Jesus. You can see both of them in the New Testament. There’s the orthodox picture: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, Saviour of the world. The second, much less obvious, picture is: Jesus of Nazareth, teacher and prophet in the Wisdom tradition of Judaism. I suspect it is the first picture that so many 21st century people reject or at least find difficult to swallow. It is the second picture which would appeal to those who seek their ‘true self’ and who often pay good money to learn how to meditate or be mindful or do yoga: all skills they ought to get for free if the church had not lost touch with Jesus the Wisdom teacher.
Jesus, the wisdom teacher, is offering us life if we deny self; not ‘true self’, but self. What’s the difference? Gerald May, in his book ‘Will and Spirit’ distinguishes between self and self-image. Self-image is, as another writer puts it, a “paste-up job”. For most of us the paste-job is all we know. If we are asked, who are you? after giving our name, we are likely to reply, ‘well I’m a …..’ and we go on to list perhaps the job we do, the skills we have, the roles we play in public. Some of us might be really honest and reveal something of our darker side: “I’m a recovering alcoholic/depressive person…..” and so on. Some bits of our self-image contain important information but none of it refers to our true self: who we truly are. And it’s difficult to answer the question, “Yes but who are you really?” Frank Lake, a Christian psychiatrist used to say, “I try not to get out of bed in the morning until I have reminded myself that I am a child of God.” The diarist Anais Nin began each day with the mantra, “I am nothing. I have nothing. I want nothing”. It was her way of clearing all the self-image clutter from her mind so that she could begin each day with a clean sheet. You might say that she began each day by denying herself, letting herself be lost in order that her true self might become a little clearer.
But why did Jesus use such strong language here? “Deny yourself and take up your cross”. If self-image is all we think we have, then losing it, letting it go, will feel scary. Nobody likes to say, ‘I’m a nobody’! It feels a bit like dying. That’s why we go for almost anything rather than letting it go: cosmetic surgery, shopping, alcohol (see my blog post for the 25th February, ‘Tradition, tradition’). If I let go of who I think I am then perhaps I really am a nobody. Jesus invites his followers to go through this scary process because he knows it is the only way to life, to our true self. This passage ends with the enigmatic words, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (chapter 9 verse 1). It’s realm we cannot see until we take the risk of letting go.