Life is full of choices. At home at the wardrobe or between the shelves at the shop we sometimes face the dilemma of choosing the best among many. We need to make decisions when organising our diaries or preparing to vote. This becomes particularly difficult when we need to opt out of some choices. Yet there are many people living in this world – near to us now as well as far away – who can only dream about exercising a genuine choice when confronted with many alternatives.
The choices and decisions we make reflect our values; they reveal what we consider to be important and of value. And we need to discuss our values in our country. This is indeed necessary, and to some extent we have done it. At the same time it has become clear that this is not an easy task, as it is not at all clear what we see as important and valuable. Opinion is divided over many questions in our society. Ever-hardening views divide people in different camps who struggle to communicate with each other.
Admittedly, we seem to have rather different views concerning what is of value and importance. However, there is something that our diverging views do find valuable and important, namely what is good for the human being. This is something responsible choice and decision-making tries to take into account. Whether this is about upholding equality, preventing climate change, supporting democracy, or helping people who suffer from war, hunger, or natural catastrophes, we want to act in a way that is good for the human being. We don’t struggle to want what is good for people as such, but to discern it with our differing values and priorities, pointing us to work for various causes.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about choosing and deciding what is of importance and value. He speaks about what is good for the human being. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Jesus emphasises the good of the human being and what makes us human. His focus is on what is good for the human being. What is good for the human being cannot be unbounded selfishness, where a person’s own good is of more value than the good of someone else or another group. And what is good for a human being cannot be of more value than what is good for nature.
In his teaching Jesus ties what is good for a human being with his own person: for “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” What is good for a human being does not ultimately rest on the human being alone. Its source is Jesus Christ our Lord, who is at the same time both human and God. This is an example of what is meant when we speak about Christ-centredness. In Jesus what is good for the human being is united with the goodness of God. Taking the human being into consideration is to serve God, and to honour God means giving value to the human being.
Jesus takes us even deeper when considering our value priorities. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Yes, what will it profit us to pursue happiness if nothing is enough? What profit will there be in power if it comes at the expense of pretending to be something one is not? Or what profit will high status accrue if, blinded by its glitter, we lose both the will and ability to see things from another human being’s perspective? Or what profit will there be in great fame if those who bestow it do not matter to the recipient?
Forfeiting one’s soul is a great disaster according to Jesus. It is difficult to discern what this forfeiting of soul might mean. What do we mean when we speak about the soul? One way of understanding it is to say that the soul represents what is indispensable and unique in every human being. The soul is the core of every person, their humanity, the core of their being. The soul is the person’s dimension, marked by their encounters with others and with God.
One of the unbecoming consequences of forfeiting one’s soul is that a human being loses their ability to be present. Then one is always somewhere else, with others rather than with those who need us now. The human being who has forfeited their soul is not present even for themselves. Empathy and the willingness to listen to another human being are sorely needed qualities that we can say arise from the soul.
Jesus considers losing yourself to entail grave harm, because it involves a loss of the possibility for an intimate relationship with others and with God. What is lost then is something genuinely human that God has created. A place of encounter with our own self, with other human beings and with God disappears. Keeping our soul is of great importance for the good of the human being.
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” These words of Our Lord are no less addressed to the new Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. During recent weeks I have had to reflect much on what it means to receive this new and demanding office. Where will this take me and where will our church go during the days ahead? At this time of vulnerability it has felt especially good to receive encouragement to be myself. In such encouragement I hear the voice of Jesus: do not forfeit your soul. I am most grateful for this encouragement and reminder.
Jesus’s message about the correct order of values tells us what the Christian faith and the life of the Church is all about: it is about the human being, created by God; the human being, who needs another human being and God; the human being whose decisions and choices have a bearing on other human beings and the whole of creation; the human being, loved by God and through whom God wants to show God’s love everywhere. For all these reasons it is important that we do not forfeit our soul.