[Jesus said] Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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 you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done (Matthew 16:24-27).
First there was the guy in Australia who auctioned off his life on eBay, including his house and its furnishings, his car, and even an introduction to his friends and a trial at his job, for nearly $400,000. That story was full of interesting insights into how we define ourselves and for what amount we think we'd be willing to trade our lives. Walter Scott, a twenty-four-year-old New Zealand man, is apparently going even farther.
Walter recently put his soul up for bid on the New Zealand auction site TradeMe.
He's received over a hundred bids. As of Wednesday, the highest bid was $189.
Walter characterizes his soul on the site as "merry old" He says he had been thinking about selling his soul for some time: "I can't see it, touch it or feel it, but I can sell it, so I'm going to palm it off to the highest bidder." Walter reassures potential bidders that his soul is in "pretty good nick" except for a rough patch six years ago when he reached the legal drinking age. The winning bidder, Walter is quick to point out, would only be entitled to his soul and would not be able to own or control him in any way. He also says that the successful bidder will receive a framed deed of "soul ownership." So, there's that.
So here's what I'm wondering: Whatever happened to the days when a person would trade their soul to the Devil for knowledge or prosperity or a World Series or the ability to play guitar? A hundred and eighty-nine dollars. You can't buy a Wii for that.
According to Jesus, of course, Walter is seriously undervaluing himself. According to him, there isn't enough money, property, power, pleasure, or fame in the world to make it a good deal for Walter. A soul isn't some part of us, some spiritual trinket that we can excise and hand out with a certificate of ownership like a Franklin Mint collectible. In fact, in Matthew 16 there's no reason to use the word "life" in verse 25 and "soul" in verse 26: they're the same word. Your life is your soul is your life, and whatever you call it there's nothing worth giving it up for except Jesus.
And yet we do. Laugh or roll your eyes or shake your head at Walter Scott all you want, but he's not doing anything that's all that different than other people do every day. He's a bit more blatant about it, and it doesn't look like he's going to get quite as much in the bargain as others, but every day people everywhere trade themselves for one thing or another. And that one thing or another is never worth the cost.
It's subtle, and seductive, and here's how it works. It begins, maybe, with a felt need: a certain standard of living, or a certain amount of respect, or a particular status in society. That need becomes a matter of life and death, the bare minimum I must have for happiness. And so I start working so many hours that my family starts to suffer, my kids start to miss me but eventually learn to get along without me, my spouse becomes a stranger. Maybe I cut some ethical corners. Maybe I take advantage of a colleague to vault up the corporate ladder. And maybe I do get what I want, and then one day I wake up and look in the mirror and wonder how I became who I am. I've gained the world, and yet to get it I've forfeited myself. My soul. My life.
For others, the price is love, or approval, or comfort, or escape. They all have at least two things in common. The first is that they can become so important to us that we will give up our true lives as God's people, lives that by his grace will stretch on into eternity, to have them. We'll give up a life shared with God for some piddling, paltry existence with the trinkets that we think we want.
You remember Gollum, don't you, from The Lord of the Rings? He wasn't always so bad — wasn't always Gollum, in fact. He was a creature named Smeagol until the glint of the Ring caught his eye and he gave up everything else to live alone, to live for nothing more than to have and to keep his Precious. It killed him in the end, of course — but he lost his life and himself long before he died. "Whoever wants to save their life will lose it."
Things like that don't just happen in books and movies, and the world is full of any number of things that quickly and easily become our Precious and turn us into creatures we wouldn't recognize if we could look through time and see how things would turn out. That's why Jesus says what he says; that's why following him involves saying no to self in the same way he did. It isn't that Jesus doesn't want us to enjoy life or prefers that we be miserable. It's that he knows how easily our efforts to "save our lives" — to have what we want — can wind up costing us our lives.
"Whoever loses their life for me will find it." Just sounds wrong, doesn't it? It would be, of course, except that Jesus knows what life really is, what it's really about. It turns out that we aren't made for spending our lives chasing all our ambitions and pursuing every whim. That isn't who we really are, and when we live like that we eventually lose ourselves. "Our" lives aren't really so much about us at all as they are about fulfilling God's purposes for us. It's on that criterion, and that one alone, that our lives will be judged "success" or "failure."
When Jesus invites us to drop our attempts to create ideal lives and follow him instead, he invites us to live the lives God created us to live. And so it's true; the only way to save our lives is to lose them, and the surest way to lose our lives is to be hung up on saving them.
So may we take him seriously. May we live lives of eternal significance and purpose. May we resist the temptation to sell ourselves out to the highest bidder. Or, if we do, may we always remember who the highest bidder really is — the one who offered himself to give us life.