Tempted to Look Out for Our Interests Alone

Part 2 of the series, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 1, 2015—Lent II
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38

Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16 • When Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.” Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you.
God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

Mark 8:31–38 • Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

I. BEGINNING

Why is it so hard to be truly selfless? What is it about human nature that makes us so reluctant to do anything that’s not in our interest? Or to imagine that what we’re all about is not primarily for our own benefit?

We live in a city where this attitude is magnified, to be sure. All of the dramas that take place in this city, especially the locally popular ones like House of Cards, all are about people looking out for their own interests and grasping for their own power.

But it’s not just our dramas; everything in our culture today is trying to sell you something that will give you some advantage, help you to come out on top. And our social media are full of self-promotion as a way that people try to claim importance or prestige or status. Looking out for Number One.

Of course, that’s hardly a modern innovation. That kind of thing has been going on for a long, long time.

II. THE TEXT

Case in point: the lesson tonight from Mark’s gospel.

The passage from the Gospel we read earlier is at the heart of Mark’s gospel. Some have seen this scene as the hinge upon which the entire gospel turns. And as such, it has a number of things in it that Mark considers essential for understanding of Christian faith.

The passage we heard comes right after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the messiah:

Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27–30 CEB)

After this confession, which marks the midpoint of the entire gospel, Jesus begins to instruct the disciples on what that means.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”

So, right away, Mark links for us Jesus’ messiahship with an understanding of that messiahship that means that Jesus will suffer, be rejected, killed, and raised.

It continues:

He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Peter confesses Jesus as the messiah. Jesus says, “You’re right,” and begins to explain what that means. And Peter says, “No, no, Jesus: you’ve got it all wrong.” Because Peter just can’t imagine that Jesus’ definition of messiah is correct. The messiah can’t suffer and die. The messiah is supposed to reign on glory and power. What on earth is Jesus talking about?

But it’s less that Peter disagrees with Jesus’ definition of messiah than that he disagrees with the implications of that definition for the definition of disciple. And then his worst fears are probably confirmed:

After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?

I don’t think Peter objected to Jesus’ definition of messiah for Jesus’ sake; I think he objected to Jesus’ definition for his sake.

III.  RELIGION ANCIENT & MODERN

See, in the ancient world, religion was all about what you could get out of it. You worshiped a deity because that deity could provide for you: rain for your crops, fertile sheep or cattle, favorable conditions for your trade or business, victory in battle. That was the purpose of the whole arrangement: what you can get out of it.

Now, Jews had long understood that religion was a covenant relationship between God and humanity in which each had covenanted to each other certain things: God had covenanted to provide steadfast love and the people had covenanted to do justice and righteousness. But we would be foolish to think that even among the Jewish people there were not many who saw the entire religious enterprise as something that was meant to gain you advantage.

This would have been especially true in the Roman era, when the continuing presence of Hellenistic religion and Roman meritocracy would reinforce the idea that personal advancement and advantage were all the aim of religion.

Of course, this is not something limited to the ancient world. This is something that continues in force today. There are plenty of Christians who are in this to get something out of it.

Practitioners of something called the “Prosperity Gospel” who believe that God wants you to be rich and so that if you pray the right prayer, offer generously of your money (usually to a particular ministry), then God will “bless” you with material abundance. The flip side, of course, is that if you’re not wealthy, it’s because you’re not praying hard enough or faithful enough.

It’s a troubling teaching not just because it’s hoodwinking thousands of people into giving away their money to the promoters of this theology (who are getting rich themselves as a result), but because Christian charity is reframed not as something altruistic, but as something that will come back to give you something. That is, even if my contributions weren’t simply lining the pockets of TV evangelists who then use their own wealth to prove the effectiveness of their beliefs, I would still be giving it away not to do any good for others, but ultimately for myself.

But even beyond the prosperity gospel, there are plenty of Christians who see their faith as ultimately giving them some benefit. If nothing else, if I’m a Christian, when I die, I’ll get into heaven. So, I can be kind to others, give to charity, help the homeless, and then after this life is over, I’ll wind up in heaven. And that’ll be good for me.

IV. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU

Perhaps this is an inescapable human condition. Perhaps there is something hardwired into us that makes us seek our benefit or that of our primary kinship group. Certainly, the phenomenon of altruism has been something that evolutionary biologists have puzzled over, concluding in many cases that altruism is beneficial to the broader kinship group. But that is not entirely without self-interest. Biologically speaking, we’re just vehicles for our genes’ survival. Our genes don’t care whether we as individuals survive, as long as our genes survive—and they can do that in our close relatives and our kinship group. So, even our biologically motivated altruism isn’t entirely selfless, if the “self” you’re thinking of is our genes.

But it seems that we humans, even with our biological altruism, are still ultimately out for self-gain. Especially within the context of our religions, ancient and modern.

In fact, there are many scholars who see this phenomenon as the background for the entire Gospel of Mark. Scholarly consensus is that Mark’s gospel was written some time around the year AD 68, probably to the Christian community in Rome. The Christian community in Rome had recently come under persecution by the Emperor Nero, who blamed them for the fire of Rome. No doubt many of these early Christians, Jewish and Gentile alike, were wondering what exactly the benefits of this faith were. It seemed to bring them nothing but suffering and certainly not any great advantage.

And here is Mark’s point: that’s Christianity. We follow a messiah who suffered and died for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and as his disciples, we are expected to “take up our cross” and follow him. If you’re suffering, in Mark’s opinion, it’s not because you picked the wrong religion or are doing religion wrong, it’s because you’re doing it right.

That’s a really counterintuitive truth and goes against most of our impulses for advantage. But this, it turns out, to Peter’s surprise and frequently to our own, is what the heart of our faith is: self-sacrifice, giving of one’s self freely, without condition. Loving recklessly and extravagantly without any thought of reward. I have long thought that if I could add another commandment or doctrine or precept to our faith it would be: “It’s not about you.”

We’re not in this because we get something out of it. We’re not in this because if we’re faithful Christians everything will turn out all right. We’ll prosper, nothing bad will happen, and we’ll be safe, happy, and rich.

We’re in this because in embracing self-sacrifice and generous and unconditional love, we come closer to knowing the heart of God.

V. END

Mark’s gospel is the gospel with the most human portrait of Jesus. And yet, even here in this gospel, when asked point blank by the high priest, “Are you the messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answers, “I am.”

Mark’s Jesus is both the suffering Son of Man and Son of God. And as Son of God, Jesus reveals to us God’s nature and God’s heart. A God not of selfish demand or narcissistic and capricious governance, who must be begged, flattered, or groveled to in order to dole out blessing and reward. Ours is a God who self-limited even to create us, [1] and whose willingness to suffer is at the heart of God’s being. As one theologian writes:

God and suffering are no longer contradictions … but God’s being is in suffering and the suffering is in God’s being itself, because God is love.[2]

Christ does not call us into lives of faith for the purpose of advantage and benefit, for lives of guaranteed successes and prosperity. God calls us into lives of love. And love frequently brings with it suffering. Love requires self-sacrifice, giving freely of oneself, and loving unconditionally.

Oh, we will be tempted to think of our own interests first. We’ve got millions of years of evolutionary biology and original sin to be able to simply decide that we will no longer seek our own interest alone. And sometimes seeking our self-interest is the loving thing to do—if only to be able to truly love ourselves so as to love others. But we will always be tempted to make our interests first and foremost in our thinking and in our doing. We will always be tempted to put our own interests first, to seek our own benefit, and even to view our relationship with God as one that ultimately gives us something that we want.

But there in the midst of our faith stands one who gave up his own advantage, who though tempted with narrow self-interest, advantage, and power gave it all up for the sake of witnessing to a God of love, and who calls us to do likewise.

There at the heart of our faith stands one who invites us to follow him, to abandon the idea that our relationship with God is about our own interest, and to turn outward towards others. And who reminds us that it is in the forsaking of self and self-interest that we draw closer to the heart of God.


Notes

[1] See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tzimtzum.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 227.