Divine Things, and Human Things

Matthew 16:21-28 / マタイ16:21−28

In today’s text, Jesus begins to speak clearly about his final days. Until now, he has taught, ministered, healed, and announced the presence of the kingdom of heaven. Now he speaks about his coming death and suffering in Jerusalem.

It must have been a shock to the disciples who had experienced all of his successes, miracles, and gathering of the crowds. The disciples were looking forward to more victory, possibly even a political victory of Israel regaining control over her captor, Rome. Jesus, was, after all – the Messiah! Peter’s words to Jesus make good sense and I would probably have said the same thing if I were there. “Lord, this can’t be!”

Jesus’ response seems harsh – the words are said to Peter but actually directed at Satan. “Get behind me Satan!” It’s clear that what Peter has said – in other words staying safe, riding the popularity wave, continuing to thrive – rather than to die on a cross, were a REAL temptation for Jesus. It would have been much easier to avoid a criminal death.  Jesus clearly labels the easy route of safety and self-preservation as “human things” or “things of men”.

“You do not have in mind the things of God (divine things), but merely human things.” あなたは神のことを思わないで、人のことを思っている。」

Perhaps those human things could include the following: safety, staying alive, political overthrow, success, comfort, or even fame. Jesus then goes on to describe “divine things” or “the things of God”

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” いのちを救おうと思う者はそれを失い、わたしのためにいのちを失う者は、それを見いだすのです。

In this case divine things included a cross, suffering, death, salvation for all, as well as care and love for all.

Maybe verse 25 could be re-worded as follows?

Anyone who tries to control their own life, thinking that they can, or attempts to find completion and fulfillment outside of God (through success, riches, health, wealth, etc.) will end up losing their life. While those that admit from the beginning that their life is not their own, that it is a gift from God to be stewarded wisely, that commit that life to God…. they will actually discover the true meaning of life.

The question I’ve had all week comes from verse 24. “What does it mean to deny myself, and take up my cross?” Is life to be ascetic and miserable? Are we to distance ourselves from any joy, bounty, and satisfaction in good gifts? That can’t possibly be what Jesus is talking about here.

Yet, is there a temptation to think about “human things” rather than about “things of God – divine things”. When our own joy and fulfillment, our own peaceful and just and free existence is ALL we seek, is it possible that we do not yet have the eyes and heart of God?  Jesus gave up his own personal safety and comfort for the greater good of all people – for the salvation of the world. Are there ways in which we also are challenged to participate in this salvation for all?  To care about the justice and freedom, and equality, and bountiful life for all people, not just ourselves?

We’ve seen demonstrations this week over another shooting of yet another black man by police in Wisconsin – Jacob Blake. Some of those demonstrations were violent and destructive, some were peaceful. Many sports figures, athletes, and entire leagues got involved. It would be easy to sit this one out…. to stay comfortable, to justify the way things are with any number of arguments. Yet, is it possible that part of what Jesus might be referring to when he says “deny yourself” may be the giving up of some of our personal freedoms and liberties – in order that we might take on a larger civic duty and responsibility for all citizens, regardless  of color?

I don’t think there’s any one time in our lives when we answer this question of  “what does denying myself mean?”. I believe the fact that we are expected to wrestle with this verse in an ongoing way is important. I suggest the following thoughts as a prayer outline in attempting to live our lives according to “divine things.”

  • God, my life is from you. I willingly give it back.  I commit it to you today.
  • All that I have – family, possessions, and abilities –  are from you.
  • Show me today, how to enjoy ALL that you’ve given me, as well as how to  live sacrificially and generously – loving my neighbor as myself.
  • Let my values be divine and eternal – not merely human and temporal.

May God show each of us how to both celebrate and enjoy the gifts of life, as well as how to give our lives away with abandon – and without fear – for the sake of others.

(the above is a summary of the message shared during our JCC Zoom Worship Time on August 30, 2020.)