Chapter 7: The Call to Costly Obedience (Matthew 16:24-28)

Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living
by John C. Purdy

Chapter 7: The Call to Costly Obedience (Matthew 16:24-28)

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."-Matthew 16:24-28

By his works and words Jesus blazed a perilous path for others to follow. He determined to go to the capital city of Jerusalem at a time when public humiliation and execution were high probabilities. Over him, as he went, hung the shadow of the cross. In his day the cross represented what the gallows, the firing squad, or the electric chair represents to us. And he said to Peter and others who would be his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him . . . take up his cross and follow "

Jesus calls us to costly obedience. Discipleship comes with a price tag shaped in the form of a cross. To follow him is to set foot on that blazed trail that leads to the city where the powers of destruction are lodged.

Where that trail forks off from the main road, there is a well-worn sign; it reads Prophetic Alternative. We have said Jesus blazed a trail; it might be more accurate to say he reopened a trail that had been closed for a long, long time. For the way of costly obedience was once well known in Israel; it was known to Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah. The trail is called prophetic because of its linkages to those great prophets; it is called an alternative because it offers a clear choice. It leads away from another path laid down in scripture.

Prudential Morality

The broad highway from which the trail branches off is the Path of Prudential Morality. It was also well known in Israel . It is the way of life most fully described by the book of Deuteronomy, by many of the Psalms, and by the Wisdom literature. It comes in full and direct expression in Psalm 1 (vs. 1-3):

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree

planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

According to the author of this psalm, God is a rock upon which to build a secure, long, and productive life. Do you wish to be healthy? Live long? Have many grandchildren? Enjoy the best the world has to offer? Go to your grave in peace? Then obey the law of God; seek those affairs that make for law and order and peace and honor among men. Along the Path of Prudential Morality are signs that promise: Take care to obey God's law and God will take care of you. Like a drumbeat accompanying a melody, the words are sounded again and again in Deuteronomy: "Therefore you shall keep [God's]... commandments, .. . that it may go well with you,.., and that you may prolong your days" (Deut. 4:40).

That point of view is well represented in the Bible. It comes to expression also in the Wisdom literature:

Honor the LORD with your substance

and with the first fruits of all your produce;

then your barns will be filled with plenty,

and your vats will be bursting with wine.

- Proverbs 3:9-10

We all ought to be familiar with this path. It is one our generation has beaten smooth. It is represented in our day by liberal arts colleges, the Masons, Rotary, life insurance, Religion in American Life, the Anti-Defamation League, the League of Women Voters, Reader's Digest, the Jaycees, the Pro-Choice Movement, Robert Schuller, the WCTU, Common Cause, savings banks, the Moral Majority, William Buckley, the Institute for Religion and Democracy-and many preachers of the mainline denominations.

These institutions and individuals-and others like them-represent what Reinhold Niebuhr called "the nicely calculated more-or-less of prudential morality." For what is the basis of their appeal to the average man and woman? They appeal to the instinct that is in all of us to opt for a good life, for a better world, for the most pleasure for the most people.

Writing of life in Amarillo, Texas, A. G. Mojtabai says in Blessed Assurance (pp. 100-101), "The notion of some sort of quid pro quo between prosperity and piety as an index -- -an outward and visible sign of righteousness -- is widespread and long preexistent in Amarillo and the nation. 'God's dynamic laws of prosperity,' as Rev. Dick Marcear, pastor of Amarillo's prospering Central Church of Christ, likes to call them, have a distinctly contractual cast." Pastor Marcear knows his scripture; prudential morality is indeed biblical. One can appeal to the Bible if one wants to make a case for this kind of way of picturing the good-read "godly"-life.

Prophetic Alternative

However, there is another pathway laid out in the Bible. It is a way of life that by no means guarantees health, long life, prosperity, or even happiness. It is the way of costly obedience. It is foreshadowed in the preaching of the prophets of Israel, most especially the Servant Songs of Isaiah. It comes to full expression in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. However, there are a number of places in the life of Israel when there was a foreshadowing of Jesus' choice of the cross. Here are three of them.

When the people of Israel were suffering slavery and oppression in Egypt, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and summoned him to go to Egypt to be a liberator. Moses rightly perceived the deadly danger of opposing the pharaoh, surely one of the most powerful rulers on earth. He tried desperately to avoid God's call. What prudent man puts his head in the mouth of a lion? And yet Moses went down into Egypt.

When the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, many of them grumbled against the foolishness that brought them there. They remembered fondly the melons and leeks eaten in Egypt. Fruits and vegetables enjoyed in bondage seemed better than hungering as free men and women in the Sinai desert! Their leader, Moses, held out only a wilderness journey with a promise that somewhere up ahead for some of them, someday, there would be a Promised Land. To follow the vision of Moses -- which led through a dry and thorny desert -- or to return over a well-beaten path to the melons and leeks of Egypt -- -these were the alternatives open to them. It is hard to see how a prudent man or woman would not turn back to Egypt. And yet they turned their backs to Egypt and went on.

When those Israelites who survived forty years of wilderness wandering had finally settled in the Promised Land, they found it no Garden of Eden. They were continually harassed by stronger, better-armed tribes. In desperation, the elders went to the prophet Samuel and asked for a king, such as other people had. A king, they reasoned, could organize a defense against their enemies. It was prudential morality of the highest sort. Who does not have a right to defend himself or herself against lawless elements? And yet Samuel tried to dissuade them, pointing out that God was their king; God would protect them. Furthermore, an Israelite king would conscript their sons into the army and make servants of their daughters and raise their taxes. But being prudent men and knowing that there is a price to be paid for freedom, they did not listen to Samuel; they insisted on a king. This was a choice with fateful consequences; it was the monarchy that proved their downfall.

The richest metaphors of the Prophetic Alternative are in the book of Isaiah. This prophet and those associated with him saw that the call of God to Israel was not to recover the glory of kings David and Solomon but to be a Suffering Servant among the nations. Not prosperity and long life was God's way for Israel, but suffering for righteousness' sake, a nation rejected and despised by the rulers of this world

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

-Isaiah 53:2-3

The Prophetic Alternative comes to full expression in the ministry and example of Jesus. The most explicit statement of it is Matthew 16:24-28, where Jesus warns that anyone who follows him must risk crucifixion. "To '' lose one's life for Jesus' sake' means to risk life, to the point of death, in order obediently to witness to Jesus and his gospel" (Hill, p. 265).

The trouble with the Prophetic Alternative, as Jesus pointed out to his disciples, is that it is imprudent. It is fraught with risk. It most assuredly involves one in suffering, in a clash with the principalities that "bear the sword" (Rom. 13:4), with those "rulers of this age ... [who] crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Cor. 2:8). The cross that Jesus invites his disciples to shoulder is a literal cross; it is the public rejection and torture and death that await those who take up, with Jesus, the cause of God's righteous rule in the earth!

If you chose this alternative, which is to stand with Jesus for God's righteous rule in this world and against all those principalities and powers that perpetuate injustice, you gamble everything dear. You chose a risky path, one that will lead most certainly near, if not to, what the cross represented for Jesus: rejection, public humiliation, and death. Ask Martin Luther King, Jr., who said from Reidsville State Prison in Georgia, "This is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people." Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned for his part in the plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler; he wrote of "costly grace." ....Ask Dom Helder Camara, Brazilian bishop and leader of the nonviolent movement for democracy in Latin America. He said, "We shall not walk on roses, people will not throng to hear us and applaud, and we shall not always be aware of divine protection. If we are to be pilgrims for justice and peace, we must expect the desert." Ask any martyr of our day or other days. They will tell you of the terror of inviting the wrath of those earthly rulers who have the power to imprison and execute.

What each of those just named had to forsake in obedience to Christ is Prudential Morality, the attempt through careful choices of good over evil to secure their lives and their place in God's favor. And that is just the choice that Jesus presents to all who would be his disciples -- to leave the broad and well-traveled way for the difficult and narrow way of costly obedience. His call to costly discipleship does not come to people who are playing bridge or drinking beer in a tavern or potting flowers or are otherwise pleasantly engaged. His call to take up the cross comes to those who are busy trying to secure their lives against the threat of death and meaninglessness.

A Great Reversal

What we have in Matthew 16:25 is a Great Reversal: "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Where is the reversal? The normal perception of the godly life is of persons taking thought for doing good in order that they may prosper. Do you recall the question put to Jesus by the rich young man? "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" One could write a history of the world's religions in terms of that question and the various answers people have given to it. Jesus' answer is the one of costly obedience: "Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

What Jesus offered to the rich young man, whose feet were firmly fixed on the path of Prudential Morality, was the Prophetic Alternative. Jesus said, in effect: If you continue to try to secure the favor of God through good works and the like you will not secure your life, you will lose it; that path leads to extinction. If you really want to find or secure your life, follow me. Seek God's kingdom. Join the movement for God's peace and justice-and God will give you eternal life as a gift!

What Jesus offered for the young man's consideration was another form of the appeal of the apostle Paul to faith rather than works: If you seek through good works to secure the favor of God, you only condemn yourself; the law becomes an implacable judge. But if you throw yourself on the mercy of God in Christ, you are born again into a new existence.

But we must not get too far away from Jesus' words, "Take up [the] cross and follow me." He called the disciples to commit themselves to his kingdom enterprise at the risk of being crushed by the powers that be. In Jesus' time, that risk was properly and graphically represented by a wooden cross. "It was an Oriental form of torture and death, adopted by Rome for slaves and rebels, but not for Roman citizens. By holding before his disciples the most horrifying and shameful type of death, Jesus stresses that no sacrifice can be too great simply to 'follow me'" (Meier, p. 114).

What is a proper and graphic representation in our generation for the cross? Falling into the clutches of a Central American death squad? Imprisonment? Solitary confinement? A firing squad? Torture in a "dirty war"? A Korean friend of mine was given the airplane torture by the Japanese during World War II. In an effort to get him to deny his Christian faith, they stood him on a table, tied his arms behind his back with a rope hanging from the ceiling, and then kicked the table away. I have an Indonesian friend whose Presbyterian minister father was imprisoned and shot by the Japanese during World War II as an enemy of the state.

I cite those examples, not to point the finger at any particular government but to demonstrate that taking up the cross is not something limited to the first century. It is required of Christians in every generation.

There is a sense in which all Christians are called to demonstrate their willingness to deny themselves and take up the cross. We call the Lord's Supper a sacrament. The word "sacrament" comes from a Latin word that was used for the oath of loyalty that a Roman soldier took to the emperor. A soldier took a sacramentum to serve the emperor faithfully, even unto death. In a similar way, when we drink the cup and eat the bread of the Supper, are we not "remembering the Lord's death" until he comes again? Are we not testifying that his kind of life leads to death on the cross? Are we not renewing our vows to be faithful to him until death?

It seems altogether fitting that one of the Christian martyrs of our time, Archbishop Oscar Romero, received a bullet in the heart just as he was about to pronounce these words of the Mass from behind the altar of the Chapel of the Divine Providence in San Salvador: "This is my body given for you."

It cannot be said often enough that the cross in Jesus' call is a literal cross; it is public execution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for his participation with other Christians in the plot to assassinate Hitler and end the Nazi terror..... It is that "cross" that is meant in Jesus' call -- not just any suffering that happens to befall Christians, like ulcers, a bad marriage, or death on the highway at the hands of a drunken driver.

The first martyrs of the Christian church in Uganda were young pages at the court of the king. When they were about to be burned alive for their faith, each was asked to name the charge against him. Each said, "For following Christ." They understood what Jesus meant when he said, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Taking up the cross has become widely used to describe all manner of human difficulties. "Time on the cross" is what some call service in the British governance of Northern Ireland. Sometimes Christians, in trying to find meaning in a physical handicap or a loss of income, will say, "That's just my cross; I'll have to bear it." One needs to say gently to such folk, "No. That is not your cross. It may be a thorn in the side, but it is not a cross."

We must not allow the cross of Jesus to be devalued, to be privatized by such talk. Jesus did not die in a plane crash, or by catching a fatal disease, or from cancer, or in a fall off a mountain. He was put to death by the combined will of the religious authorities, the populace, and the forces of law and order -- what the Bible calls "principalities and powers." And to follow Jesus, to become part of his movement for peace and righteousness, means to risk the wrath of those principalities, who have it within their power to do to us what they did to Jesus. "As goes the Master, so goes the disciple" (Meier, p. 187).

Even if we were strongly inclined to understand "take up his cross" to refer to shouldering some personal deprivation or disability, the text of Matthew would not allow it. For appended to the call to cross-bearing is this warning: "For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matt.16:27-28).

The "Son of man," whom Christians understand to be Jesus in his risen power and status, is clearly both a ruler and a judge. "The reason why disciples must follow in the way of sacrificial living is that there is a coming judgement" (Hill, p. 265). In the Old Testament a judge was not so much someone who handed out sentences as one who judged between parties to set things right. When the Son of man comes, he will put things right; he will establish the kingdom of peace and righteousness that is promised in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. The Son of man will judge the judges of this world and overrule the rulers; he is clearly a political as well as a religious figure. It is in behalf of this Jesus that we are called to "take up the cross," which rather clearly cannot mean anything but what we have understood it to mean in this chapter. It is to risk danger and death at the hands of the judges and rulers of this world.

This is one of the most difficult concepts in scripture for Americans to understand. We find it hard to get it into our heads and hearts that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" might act against the cause of Christ, might subvert peace and justice, might put national security ahead of justice. We still have not learned the lesson of Vietnam; democratic governments are not necessarily more moral than oligarchies or totalitarian governments; they are capable of cruel self-deception. They are, as M.Scott Peck describes in People of the Lie, capable of evil.

Several questions hang in the air, begging for answers. One has to do with world-denying religions like Buddhism. They call upon adherents to give up the attempt to live according to desires and appetites and pleasures -- to save the soul by denying the body. Isn't that a possible meaning of "take up his cross"? Or at least of"deny himself"? Not in a Christian context. We believe that God made the world good, that God wills goodness and life for humankind. To deny ourselves in that sense would be a denial of the very God in whom we believe.

The other question that hangs in the air is this Why should anyone be crazy enough to take such a risky path? Why not take one's chances with the Path of Prudential Morality, trusting that God will reward good and decent behavior? Ah! But Jesus' promise is that the Son of man, when he comes as God's judge, will not look upon things that way. When the judge comes-who is also the crucified one-he will ask, Why did you try to secure your own life through good works, when I paid the price of my life to secure yours? Was it for nothing that I died for you? Could I have done it by being reasonable? Moral? Decent? Kindly? If at the heart of God there is a cross, there must be a cross in the heart of those who would love and serve God. Think about that-the rest of your life.

The message of Jesus' cross is clearly this: One died and suffered for all; no one need pay for his or her sins; misery in this life is not punishment for wrongdoing. And the reverse is equally true: There is no promise that if we suffer patiently and cheerfully from our disabilities or accidents, God will reward us. Such sufferings are a part of our lot as humans. The question Jesus puts to each of us is not, Will you accept cheerfully and patiently whatever suffering life brings you? Rather, it is, Will you heed my call to work for justice and peace, even if that brings you into conflict with the judges and rulers of this world, who have the power to put you to death?

Let us take as our model for Christian discipleship Edith Stein. She was a German Jew who was converted to Christianity and became a Roman Catholic nun. When World War II came, she was hunted down by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp -- Auschwitz -- where, until she was gassed, she busied herself with comforting and consoling the other internees. Edith Stein reminds us both of the demand of Christ and of the awful face of the state when it pretends to act in the national interest.

Edith Stein was a Carmelite nun. Lest we think all martyrdom is at the hand of right-wing states, we do well to remember the fate of those nuns whose death at the hands of the French Revolution is chronicled by Poulenc in his opera Dialogues of the Carmelites. In the final scene of the opera the small band of nuns is on stage, singing the praises of Christ. One by one they are led to the guillotine, which is offstage. The audience hears the awful whomp of the blade-and one less singer. Finally there is a single nun, who goes swiftly and gladly, still singing, to her fate. The opera is based on history; there was a convent of nuns who were executed by the leftist revolution for being enemies of the people.

Each Generation

To each generation the call to take up the cross comes in a different way. It is much easier to look back with hindsight to other generations and their call than it is to hear Christ's call in our day. In the PBS version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, in the year 1916 a student chooses to go to prison rather than serve in a war he has come to believe is wrong. He does this in defiance even of the saintly Chips, whom he dearly loves.

In 1934 the Confessing Church in Germany took a stand against Hitler when the majority of Christians supported his new regime.

When as a child I visited Korea in 1935, I heard the missionaries of the Presbyterian Church debating the so-called Shrine Controversy. The colonial overlords of Japan demanded that all Korean schoolchildren go to the Shinto shrines and bow to the emperor. Some missionaries saw that as idolatry; others thought it wise to do what the rulers asked and call it a patriotic gesture.

In the 1960s in the United States the early protesters against the war in Vietnam found their parents and pastors hostile to their views.

As we look back, it may seem to us rather easy to discern the will of Christ. However, it must have been extraordinarily difficult for those folks to make choices.

What are the issues and causes in the remainder of the twentieth century that call us to the cross? The Sanctuary movement? The struggle against Soviet imperialism? Resistance against our government's policy in Central America? Opposition to nuclear armaments? The fight against racism? The war on drugs? The struggle for gay rights? The battle for the environment? Whatever the issue, we may be sure of this: It will be costly. When the call comes, we must remember the words of Jesus: "For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?"