A philosophy professor once posed a problem to his class: “A certain man has syphilis; his wife has tuberculosis. Of their four children, one has died and the other three suffer from a disease that is considered terminal. The mother is pregnant again. So what should be done?”
The class discussed the question at length. They voiced pros and cons for each option. Finally, a majority of students recommended that the mother should terminate her pregnancy. Clearly, it was the most expedient option under the circumstances.
“Fine,” said the professor. “You have just killed Ludwig von Beethoven.”
Sometimes the immediate and obvious solution is not the highest and holiest answer.
Even the best of us may act more from a need for expedience than a regard for principle. Expedience is the practice of seeking a quick fix, even though a little patience might yield a wiser and better decision. Expedience insists on a short-term solution rather than waiting for any longer-term answer that may serve the greater good. Expedience favours an immediate response to issues, regardless of long-term implications.
I suspect many of us struggle with being expedient. I know I do. After all, we live in a culture that bombards us with messages about the self: self-absorption, self-actualization, self-advancement, self-assurance, self-improvement, self-interest, self-realization and self-fulfillment.
One of the old Peanuts comic strips helps us laugh at self-centredness: Lucy is swinging at the playground while Charlie Brown reads to her from a book, “It says here that the world revolves around the sun once a year.” Lucy stops abruptly and responds, “The world revolves around the sun? Are you sure? I thought it revolved around me.”
There is a Lucy in all of us. There are times when each of us really does believe that the world revolves around me and my needs and my concerns. We want what we want now; never mind what it’s going to cost us, or who it affects, or the impact it has on other people, or the damage it does to our planet. The notion of sacrifice, of self-discipline, of living for someone or something greater than us seems to be an increasingly alien notion in Western culture.
That makes today’s gospel-Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection, Mark 8:31−38-all the more unpalatable to our tender tastes. At this point, Jesus is at the height of his popularity. He has fed thousands with scant baskets of food. He has miraculously healed the blind. Great crowds are seeking him. Jesus is fast becoming the most popular figure in all of Israel.
So what is Jesus’ next move? Does he cozy up with all the right people? Does he build a base of support to outmaneuver his opponents? Does he take a poll to gauge public opinion? Does he assemble a focus group to determine what to say or how to act?
The gospel says, “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.”
Wouldn’t you agree, this was not a very shrewd thing to do, especially if Jesus was hoping to get anywhere in this world? That was Peter’s reaction.
No sooner does Jesus speak about suffering and sacrifice than Peter roundly rebukes him for it. “You fool,” Peter says in so many words. “You’ll never get anywhere taking that route. Don’t be naive. Let me tell you how to be popular and successful in this world.”
But before Peter can say another word, Jesus tells him in no uncertain terms that his strategy is not of God.
Then Jesus says something that must have shocked his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Jesus asks his disciples to do what he is about to do. In the Garden of Gethsemane he will choose to subjugate his will to the will of the Father. On Good Friday he will take up his cross and bear it to Calvary.
Jesus did what he had to do, and he did it not for his own gain, but for others-for you and me.
We Anglicans have a hymn (Common Praise, #431):
Take up your cross, the Saviour said, if you would my disciple be;
deny yourself, the world forsake, and humbly follow after me.
Taking up your cross has nothing to do with bearing hardships or enduring suffering or handling disappointment-as if the aches and pains you wake up with each morning are your cross.
No, to take up your cross is to live with integrity, to serve God loyally, to put aside selfish gain and focus your attention on God’s agenda. If that costs you money or even your job, if you have to give up your time, or take a stand for justice and peace, then that is what you have to do.
In other words, doing the right thing is never an option for a Christian-it’s the only thing.
I know that this is a hard teaching; it’s tough and not what we want to hear. We want a reasonable, respectable Christianity that doesn’t make too many demands on us, doesn’t upset too many people and doesn’t make us stand out from the culture too much. We don’t want to appear odd or strange to our non-Christian friends. We want to blend in, to be like everyone else.
Consider T.S. Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party, in which a group of people live out the delusions of the good life. They spend their lives in pursuit of pleasure, but they end up with despair. They go from relationship to relationship, happy hour to happy hour, psychologist to psychologist. Then one young woman discovers the self-giving love of Jesus, and begins serving others. She disappears from the social scene, and after two years, news comes that she has died. She was crucified on an anthill on a faraway island, where she had been nursing plague-infested natives who would have died anyway. Her friends sip their drinks and murmur, “What a waste!”
Like those at Eliot’s cocktail party, we have trouble even thinking in terms of real sacrifice, so accustomed are we to thinking in terms of expedience. Yet self-denial is central to the Christian life. Following Jesus is hard. But then again, whoever said it was supposed to be easy?
In Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, the protagonist is a health inspector named Dr. Stockmann. He lives in a town dependent on the tourist trade for visitors to its renowned spas. When Dr. Stockmann discovers that the town’s water supply is contaminated and dangerous, he notifies the town leaders in order to avert a possible catastrophe. To his surprise, the mayor rebukes him and tries to silence him. The citizens are outraged that the doctor would want to warn visitors, for that could ruin the economy.
By the end of the play, Dr. Stockmann is reviled, outcast and unemployed-but he hasn’t compromised. Finding refuge in what he knows to be true, his final words are, “The strongest person in the world is the one who stands alone.”
He lost nearly everything most people cherish: a well-paying job, a good name, a comfortable lifestyle, an untroubled family life, social standing in the community, a secure future. He let them go for the sake of something greater, something ultimately more important.
Since the financial collapse on Wall Street, corporate executives who are part of that nasty one per cent of the population have been the target of much disdain. But let me tell you about someone who exemplifies the best in business rather than the worst.
In 2001, the CEO of Baxter International, a medical supply company, made a decision that cost his company 189 million dollars. No, Baxter’s CEO, Harry Kraemer, wasn’t corrupt or unethical or dishonest. He didn’t abuse company finances to live a luxurious life. It was Kraemer’s honesty and his high sense of ethics that caused him to make a momentous decision.
In 2001, executives at Baxter International learned that one of the products they manufactured, a filter for a kidney dialysis machine, may have been defective. Some dialysis patients who had been using the Baxter International filter had died of unexplained causes.
Rather than covering up the situation, Kraemer recalled all the filters and instituted a rigorous investigation of the problem. This recall and investigation cost the company 189 million dollars.
To top it off, he informed all his competitors in the medical manufacturing business of the possible flaws in Baxter’s filters, so that they could benefit from the research his investigation turned up.
Kraemer also recommended that his performance bonus for that year be cut, because the situation had occurred under his leadership.
I don’t know if Harry Kraemer is a Christian, but he acted like one in how he handled that crisis. He gained the respect of his colleagues and the confidence of his customers, and all because, when the moment of decision came, he was willing to bear a cross-to live by principle rather than by expedience.
We each have a choice in how we live our lives. We can opt for expedient living, immediate benefits, instant gratification and self-centred pursuits. Or we can choose cross-centred living by following the way of Jesus-the way of self-denial for a distant but approaching kingdom, the willingness to sacrifice for it, and the vulnerability of suffering for the truth.
Yes, it costs something to be a follower of Jesus. On the other hand, if following Jesus was a “piece of cake,” with no standards and guidance for good living, his way would have disappeared centuries ago as just another passing fad. But in his living and dying and living again, Jesus shows us what it means to live a cross-centred life.
Accept no substitutes.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.