Losing and saving your life

Sad to say, but “familiarity breeds contempt” can apply to the way we read Scripture. If you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the church, you’ve probably read about, discussed, and heard sermons and teachings on familiar passages numerous times.

This can lead to a kind of learner’s fatigue when the “spiritual principles” distilled from study become as predictable as the platitudes printed on inspirational coffee mugs. Which makes the inspired word, well, uninspiring.

Once enough insipid teaching accumulates, it actually obscures the light we ought to receive. I’ve always liked this description of the way Bible study ought to work: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130). Except when we get in the way.

The story of the wealthy young man (or, in Luke, the ruler) is important for its warning that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. But if we imagine that the story’s an indictment of wealth or affluence because that’s usually the way it’s been presented to us, then we’re going to miss a more important message.

The exchange between Jesus and the man is a concise illustration of one of the fundamental principles of discipleship: you must “lose your life” to find it, or, conversely, you will lose the one you “save.”

With some variation in phrasing, this appears in all four of the gospels: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Mt 16:25).

It’s clear from the account what this man’s life was all about.  Elsewhere Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). Faced with the prospect of losing them, this man wouldn’t let go.

But as with Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10) and for countless others down through church history, even a wealthy person’s life doesn’t necessarily consist in the abundance of his possessions. Which is the point.

As I recounted in my first post, one of the first things I did after converting as a college freshman was to suspend my social drinking with friends. But it was a relatively painless decision. For the simple reason that it wasn’t my life. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing there worth “saving.”

With his deft handling of the young man’s question and evident sincerity, including the wry and ironic “one thing you lack,” Jesus’ response is a snapshot of the dynamics of discipleship for everyone (“. . whoever loses their life . . will find it”).

It appears that the young man felt something was lacking even though, evidently, he led an upright life. But rather than quibble with this assertion, Jesus simply re-directed the conversation down the right path. The “one thing” he lacked was not a simple omission or two; it was the only thing that could set him free.

You can find an elaboration of this dynamic in the story of Jacob (Gen 25-33). As Esau aptly observes after his brother tricks Isaac into giving him his blessing: “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times” (Gen 27:36, the other time being cheated of his birthright).

Nor was this all. Jacob was just as deceitful with Laban (Gen 31:1-21). As a result, Jacob was constantly on the move—to “save his life,” both figuratively and, in anticipation of meeting Esau again, probably literally.

With time running out, Jacob sent gifts hoping to pacify his angry brother, but then found himself alone and wrestling with a mysterious, unnamed man.

The turning point comes when the man asks Jacob his name. “Jacob,” and then the revelation of who he really was, deceiver. It was Jacob’s “one thing you lack” moment.   

It wasn’t that Jacob never wanted God’s blessing. He did. And he never went to the extreme of despising his birthright as Esau did.

But for as long as he tried to “save his life,” life eluded him. Only when he “lost” his deceiving ways did he find it (signified by a new name) and the peace he kept forfeiting for so long.

Once enough insipid teaching accumulates, it actually obscures the light we ought to receive. I’ve always liked this description of the way Bible study ought to work: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130). Except when we get in the way.

The story of the wealthy young man (or, in Luke, ruler) is important for its warning that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. But if we imagine that the story’s an indictment of wealth or affluence because that’s usually the way it’s been presented to us, then we’re going to miss a more important message.

The exchange between Jesus and the man is a concise illustration of one of the fundamental principles of discipleship: You must “lose your life” to find it, or, conversely, you will lose the one you “save.”

With some variation in phrasing, this appears in all four of the gospels: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Mt 16:25).

It’s clear from the account what this man’s life was all about.  Elsewhere Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). Faced with the prospect of losing them, this man wouldn’t let go.

But as with Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10) and for countless others down through church history, even a wealthy person’s life doesn’t necessarily consist in the abundance of his possessions. Which is the point.

As I recounted in my first post, one of the first things I did after converting as a college freshman was to suspend my social drinking with friends. But it was a relatively painless decision. For the simple reason that it wasn’t my life. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing there worth “saving.”

With his deft handling of the young man’s question and evident sincerity– including the wry and ironic “one thing you lack”– Jesus’ response is a snapshot of the dynamics of discipleship for everyone (“. . whoever loses their life . . will find it”).

It appears that the young man felt something was lacking even though, evidently, he led an upright life. But rather than quibble with this assertion, Jesus simply re-directed the conversation down the right path. The “one thing” he lacked was not a simple omission or two; it was the only thing that could set him free.

You can find an elaboration of this dynamic in the story of Jacob (Gen 25-33). As Esau aptly observes after his brother tricks Isaac into giving him his blessing: “Is he not rightly named Jacob? [meaning supplanter, deceiver] For he has cheated me these two times” (Gen 27:36, the other time being cheated of his birthright).

Nor was this all. Jacob was just as deceitful with Laban (Gen 31:1-21). As a result, Jacob was constantly on the move—to “save his life,” both figuratively and, in anticipation of meeting Esau again, probably literally.

With time running out, Jacob sent gifts hoping to pacify his angry brother, a last-ditch effort at saving his life, but then found himself alone and wrestling with a mysterious, unnamed man.

The turning point comes when the man asks Jacob his name. “Jacob,” and then the revelation of who he really was, deceiver. It was Jacob’s “one thing you lack” moment.   

It wasn’t that Jacob never wanted God’s blessing. He did. And he never went to the extreme of despising his birthright as Esau did.

But for as long as he tried to “save his life,” life eluded him. Only when he “lost” his deceiving ways did he find it (signified by a new name) and the peace he kept forfeiting for so long.

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