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Whoever Loses His Life for My Sake and that of the Gospel Will Save It

General Audience — July 29, 1987

In our search for the Gospel signs revealing Christ's consciousness of his divinity, we emphasized in the previous reflection his appeal to his disciples to have faith in him. "Have faith in God and have faith also in me" (Jn 14:1) is a request which only God could make. Jesus demanded this faith when he manifested his divine power which transcends all natural powers, for example, in the raising of Lazarus from the dead (cf. Jn 11:38-44). He demanded it also in the test of faith in the saving power of the cross, as he stated right from his conversation with Nicodemus (cf. Jn 3:14-15). This faith is faith in his divinity, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9).

Faith concerns an invisible reality which is beyond sense experience and surpasses the limits of the human intellect itself (argumentum non apparentium, "the evidence of things not seen," cf. Heb 11:1). As St. Paul wrote, it refers to "what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart," but what God has prepared for those who love him (cf. 1 Cor 2:9). Jesus demanded such a faith when on the day before his death on the cross—ignominious from a human standpoint—he told the apostles that he was going to prepare a place for them in his Father's house (cf. Jn 14:2).

These mysterious things, this invisible reality, is identified with the infinite Goodness of God, eternal Love, supremely worthy of being loved above everything. Therefore, together with the request for faith Jesus placed the commandment of the love of God "above all things." It had already been laid down in the Old Testament, but Jesus repeated and corroborated it in a new spirit. It is true that in replying to the query, "What is the greatest commandment of the law?" Jesus quoted the words of the Mosaic law. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt 22:37; cf. Dt 6:5). But the full meaning which the commandment assumed on the lips of Jesus appears from the reference to other elements in the context in which he moved and taught. Without doubt he wished to inculcate that only God can and must be loved above all created things; and only in relationship to God can there be in man a demand of a love above all things. Only God, by virtue of this demand of radical and total love, can call a person to follow him without reserve or limitation, and in an indivisible way, as we read in the Old Testament, "The Lord, your God, shall you follow...his commandment shall you observe...you shall serve him and hold fast to him alone" (Dt 13:5). Only God "is good" in the absolute sense (cf. Mk 10:18; also Mt 19:17). Only he "is love" (1 Jn 4:16) by essence and definition. But here we have an element which appears new and surprising in the life and teaching of Christ.

Jesus calls us to follow him personally. This call, it may be said, is at the very heart of the Gospel. On the one hand Jesus issues this call; on the other, the evangelists speak of the people who follow him, and indeed, of some who leave everything to follow him.

We think of all those calls of which the evangelists tell us. "One of the disciples said to him, 'Lord, let me go first and bury my father.' But Jesus answered him, 'Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead'" (Mt 8:21-22). This is a drastic way of saying: leave everything, immediately, for me. This is Matthew's account. Luke adds the apostolic connotation of this call, "You go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (Lk 9:60). On another occasion he found Matthew sitting at the customs post, and he said to him with a certain insistence, as Matthew himself recorded later, "'Follow me.' And he got up and followed him" (Mt 9:9; cf. Mk 2:13-14).

Frequently, to follow Jesus means not only to leave one's occupation and to sever one's bonds with the world, but also to renounce the condition of prosperity one may enjoy, and indeed to give one's goods to the poor. Not all are prepared to take this radical step. The rich young man was not prepared to do so, even though he had observed the law from his youth and was perhaps seeking seriously a way of perfection. But "on hearing this [that is, Jesus' invitation], he went away sad for he had many possessions" (Mt 19:22; cf. Mk 10:22). Others, however, not only accept this "Follow me," but, like Philip of Bethsaida, feel the need to communicate to others their conviction of having found the Messiah (cf. Jn 1:43 ff.). Simon himself, at his very first meeting, heard the words, "You will be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)" (Jn 1:42). John the evangelist noted that Jesus "fixed his gaze on him." That intense look contained the strongest and most captivating "Follow me." But it seems that Jesus, given the altogether special vocation of Peter (and perhaps also his natural temperament) wished to allow his capacity to weigh and accept that invitation mature gradually. For Peter, the literal "Follow me" will come after the washing of the feet at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 13:36), and later, in a definitive way, after the resurrection, on the shore of Lake Tiberias (cf. Jn 21:19).

Doubtlessly, Peter and the other apostles—except Judas—understood and accepted the call to follow Jesus as a total donation of self and of their belongings to the cause of the proclamation of the kingdom of God. They themselves later reminded Jesus, through the mouth of Peter, "We have given up everything and followed you" (Mt 19:27). Luke's account is more precise: "all our possessions" (Lk 18:28). Jesus himself seemed to desire to specify what these possessions were when he said to Peter, "Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive an overabundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come" (Lk 18:29-30).

Matthew's version also mentions leaving sisters, mother, and lands "for the sake of my name." He who does so, Jesus promised, "will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life" (Mt 19:29).

Mark's account is more specific about leaving all things "for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel," and also about the reward. "He will receive a hundred times more now in this present age—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come" (Mk 10:29-30).

Without concerning ourselves for the moment with the figurative language used by Jesus, we may ask: who is he who issues the call to follow him, and promises to those who follow him such great rewards, even eternal life? Can an ordinary human being promise so much, and be believed and followed, and have such a hold not only on those happy disciples but also on thousands and millions of people throughout the centuries?

Those disciples well remembered the authority with which Jesus called them to follow him. He did not hesitate to ask of them a radical dedication, expressed in terms which could appear paradoxical. For example, he said that he had come to bring "not peace but a sword," that is, to create separations and divisions in families in order to follow him. Then he said, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10:37-38). Luke formulates it even more strongly and almost severely: "If anyone comes to me without hating [a Hebraism, which means: if he does not separate from] his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:26).

Faced with these expressions of Jesus one cannot but reflect on the nobility and difficulty of the Christian vocation. Undoubtedly the concrete forms of the following of Christ are graduated by himself according to the conditions, possibilities, missions and charisms of persons and classes. Jesus' words, as he himself said, are "spirit and life" (cf. Jn 6:63). And one cannot presume to materialize them in an identical manner for everyone. But according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the Gospel request for heroic renunciations, such as those of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and self-denial in order to follow Jesus, commits everyone secundum praeparationem animi (cf. Summa. Theol., II-II, 184, 7 ad 1). That is, it means to be ready in spirit to carry out what is required, should one be called upon to do so. The same can be said of the oblation of self in martyrdom rather than deny the faith and the following of Christ. The counsels therefore imply for everyone an interior detachment, a donation of self to Christ, without which there is no true evangelical spirit.

From the Gospel itself it is clear that there are particular vocations dependent upon Christ's choice, such as that of the apostles and of many disciples indicated clearly enough by Mark, "He went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him" (Mk 3:13-14). According to John, Jesus himself said to the apostles in the final discourse, "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you..." (Jn 15:16).

It does not appear that he definitively condemned those who did not consent to follow him on a path of total dedication to the cause of the Gospel (cf. the case of the rich young man in Mk 10:17-27). There is something more perfect which calls for the free generosity of the individual. It is certain, however, that the call to Christian faith and love is universal and of obligation—faith in the word of Jesus, love of God above all things and love of one's neighbor as oneself. "He who does not love a brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4:20).

In establishing the need of the response to the call to follow him, Jesus concealed from no one that to follow him involves sacrifice, sometimes also the supreme sacrifice. He said to his disciples, "If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Mt 16:24-25).

Mark stresses that together with the disciples Jesus had also called together the crowd, and to all he spoke of the denial required of those who wish to follow him, of the taking up of the cross and of the loss of life "for my sake and that of the Gospel" (Mk 8:34-35). And Jesus said this after having spoken of his proximate passion and death (cf. Mk 8:31-32).

At the same time, however, Jesus proclaimed blessed those who are persecuted "on account of the Son of Man" (Lk 6:22)."Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven" (Mt 5:12).

Once again we ask ourselves: who is this who authoritatively calls us to follow him; foretells hatred, insults and persecutions of every kind (cf. Lk 6:22); and promises a reward in heaven? Only the Son of God could speak in such a manner. It was in this sense that the apostles and disciples understood him, and they transmitted to us his revelation and his message. In this sense we, too, wish to understand him, repeating to him with the Apostle Thomas, "My Lord and my God."