What an interesting juxtaposition we read in today’s Gospel. First, Jesus tells His disciples of his pending death and resurrection. Then, He pivots to tell all of those in the vicinity “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” One cannot help but draw the immediate connection between the prophecy of His death and the conditional given for discipleship. This must have been quite shocking to hear; follow Jesus, even unto death. A startling statement.
How painful must it have been for Jesus’ closest followers to hear that the spiritual leaders of Israel would not receive him as Messiah? There is a lack of validation here. Wouldn’t you want your teacher to get notoriety? Hadn’t He done so many signs already? Why would those they had been taught to hold in high regard turn away from the very thing they have been teaching about? We can look at these exchanges through the lens of the resurrection and building of the church, but the disciples had to face great difficulty on this point. The rejection of Jesus by the teachers of Israel has a strong thematic arc through the Gospels and early church.
Jesus then gives the reason why following Him unto death is what it means to be a disciple. For to turn away from Him, to reject Him, is to love the things of the world. This means those things which are opposed to the Kingdom of God. States of affairs that stand athwart God’s way, viz. money, power, acclaim. Those things who ultimately worship something else other than the true and living God.
Jesus tells us we gain nothing by gaining the world. If we had every piece of money that was ever made, if every single subatomic particle on earth was within our possession, if every other human paid obeisance to us, it would still not be enough. We would always want more. Our wills cannot be satisfied with anything that is made. Ultimately, nothing in this world can fill us. No temporal good can make us truly happy. We can only get temporary spikes of euphoria before we want more. The trap of our will - 'hair-trigger sensitive' as it is to disordered passions, is easily sprung. And, like the coyote, usually, nothing short of chewing off our leg (cf Matthew 5:30) will free us.
It is important to note the Lord does not ask for blind faith. He did not ask for blind faith from the twelve and does not from anyone else. So many times, He gives us the ‘why’ that we so deeply desire based on our nature as rational creatures. If only we are open to listening. In this case, He tells us that gaining the world is to forfeit oneself. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray. What we truly become when ensnared by the world is a gross caricature of our true self, the person made by God and for God.
There is no good choice for us outside of Jesus. Sure, there are other choices. None of them will result in our ultimate good. To deny ourselves is to ignore the little voice of the ego and hear the mighty voice of the Father. It is realizing our needs are met and God will give us what we need, whatever that might be.