Strong Medicine: Adult Dosage
What is the metric, the standard by which the value of our lives will be determined? I cannot imagine a more fundamental question. It quickly brings up a second question: if the right metric is applied, and as I look back on my life, I see that there are problems, is there still time to fix them, or is it too late?
“How Will You Measure Your Life?”
First, to the question of value and the right metric, I just read an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen (July 2010). Dr. Christensen makes the observation that over the years he has observed the lives of the smart, successful people he graduated with from the Harvard Business School class of 1979. He says,
“I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them.”
By the metrics our culture generally uses to assess the value of life, these people have it all: they are highly educated, highly successful, highly respected. Is that all there is? Dr. Christensen reflects on his own stellar career. He says, as a professor of business and a consultant:
“I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact.”
But then, this:
“This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned…. the experience has given me important insight into my life.
Here is the insight:
“… as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars….”
Yes, as is now clear, this Harvard Business professor is a man of faith. He concludes his reflection with this:
“This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”
Matthew and the Metric
The text before us, from Matthew’s gospel, is precisely about the metric by which our lives will be judged. It is also about the question, what if things have not gone well so far: is it too late? Let us look at this text together.
There are two crosses in this text; one that Jesus is anticipating for himself, and one that he calls his followers to take up.
First, some context: we are still with the disciples where we left them last week, in the region of Caesarea-Philippi, near the Palace of Herod-Phillip and the great temple complex of the goat-god, Pan, at the base of an enormous rock. There, Simon has just been named “Rock” or Peter, by Jesus, because he has just confessed the faith that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God.”
That confession is the very foundation of the church. Jesus congratulates Peter for the God-given clarity of his statement. Peter, Jesus indicates, is going to have the ministry of unlocking the doors of the Kingdom of God for Jews and non-Jews, in effect, for the world.
From Rock to stumbling block
And now from the heights of that happy moment, Peter suddenly sinks down into the depths of the worst thing Jesus ever said to anyone:
“23But he (Jesus) turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
From the rock of the foundation of the church to a stumbling block; from a God-given revelation to a Satanic temptation – what was that all about? Simple. Jesus had said, right after accepting the label “messiah, son of the living God”
21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Success and Suffering
By the standard metrics of success, Jesus, as messiah, should march right into Jerusalem and get himself enthroned as the new King (that is why people were anointed – which is what “messiah” means). The metrics of success could not, would not include suffering, according to the common view, which Peter just expressed.
But of course, for Jesus, suffering death on a cross was exactly what he was going to do. That suffering, that death on a cross, was the defeat of the powers of evil arrayed against the purposes of God. Jesus knew “he must go” as he said: it was a God-given necessity.
Jesus believed that God would vindicate his suffering in resurrection, but the suffering had to come first:
“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Peter objects, saying,
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
and then has to hear those horrible words:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The “Prosperity Gospel”
We need to pause right here to notice something. There are a number of people preaching that God’s will for everyone is to remove all suffering. They teach that if you have enough faith, you will be healthy and become wealthy. They are on TV, they look like their message works for them – straight teeth and perfect suits.
I have no idea where they get their teaching. It is not from Jesus. It is just about as opposite Jesus’ teaching as a person can get. If this isn’t abundantly clear already, it will become so, very soon.
Let’s continue with Matthew’s story.
So, Peter has just been cast in the role of Satan, a stumbling block, an obstacle to God’s will. Is that it? Is it all over for him? Is following Jesus like a sudden death play-off in which one loss leads to elimination?
The question is important for people who have already lived a lot of life. For most of us here, most of our lives are behind us. What if we use the Jesus-metric and realize we come up short? Is it too late?
No, it is not too late, but it is seriously dangerous. If it was not too late for Peter, after being called Satan, it is not too late for us. But it is serious. The next part is crucial.
“24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I cannot believe he said that; it must have sounded horrible. Who would “want to become” a follower at that price?
I know who. People who believe Jesus, when he says,
“25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
You can be a super-successful Harvard Business School graduate, but what metric is going to matter when you get the diagnosis, and it’s all over? What will
look important to you from the end?
Time for Re-evaluation
This is the moment for re-evaluation. No matter what metric we have used throughout our lives, today we can choose to become followers of Jesus.
The cross was the consequence Rome imposed on insurrectionists; people who were unwilling to accept that Roman domination was a settled, unchallengeable fact.
Today, there are consequences for refusing to accept modern cultural domination too. There are consequences for refusing to accept that success as the only metric by which to value our lives.
We may end up with less money to spend on ourselves; so be it. We may end up with people who misunderstand us and even reject us; small price to pay.
Costs, both ways
But the alternative is not without cost too. Our success-driven culture has produced the world we live in: huge divorce rates, families split by alienation; even common meal times are increasingly rare, depression, isolation, loneliness; who could call this success?
And on a broader scale, as our culture has embraced the success metric as the only valid measure of a life, so it has given up trying to find permanent solutions to poverty.
We have allowed the nightmares of our inner cities to develop, with their 50% dropout rates, their gangs, their drugs, their violence, and hopelessness; this is a ticking bomb. The gap between those who make it in our success-metric world and those who never will is growing; is our culture so blind as to think there are enough police and prisons to contain what is coming?
According to the success-metric:
“25 …those who want to save their life will lose it,”
Those words are an adult dose of strong medicine to a sick patient.
There is another way.
“…those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus has taught us what the “blessed life” consists of. This is why we say the Beatitudes. This is the metric of the Kingdom of God: poverty of spirit, mourning over evil, meekness, longing for justice, mercy-giving, pure-heartedness, peace making, and willingness to suffer for the things that are right.
“…those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
It’s not too late: but it is urgent. Time is short.