For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
I’m not sure our culture has completely grasped this verse. Even in the Church, I think we often attach the conditional “if” only to the “forfeits his soul” part of Jesus’ first question. It’s like we think that Jesus isn’t warning us about trying to gain the whole world; he’s just warning us about losing our soul in the process. We believe that there must be a “Christian” way to gain the whole world, where we can have power, prosperity, and possessions while still retaining our soul.
The more I consider this passage, however, the more I am convinced that this just isn’t true. The word “forfeit” that Jesus uses here has the idea of a fine or a penalty. I don’t think Jesus is saying that there is a danger of losing one’s soul when one pursues the whole world. He’s saying that the penalty for pursuing the world is one’s soul.
There is a huge difference between those two ideas. The first interpretation, which we would probably prefer, says that you can pursue wealth and comfort and prestige without any danger to your soul, as long as you do it the right way (in our culture this would probably be regular church attendance and giving money to church and charity). The second interpretation, the one that makes us uncomfortable but is probably more accurate, says that if you pursue those things, the cost of gaining them is your soul.
This is why Jesus asks, “what will it profit a man?” When the cost is your soul, anything you gain from that transaction is cancelled out by the price you paid. In fact, Jesus’ second question is a logical progression from the first and assumes the loss of the soul. Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? Once you’ve pursued the world and forfeited your soul, what could you possibly trade to get it back?
“In return” is a term of the marketplace and refers to an exchange. In Jesus’ example, a man has gone to the market and sold his soul in exchange for the things of this world. However, when he realizes his folly and wants to buy back his soul, he finds that he has nothing to give in exchange. In other words, he sold low and is trying to buy high. He has nothing of great enough value to give in exchange for his soul.
In the midst of a passage talking about the cost of discipleship, Jesus is doing more in this verse than just warning us of the chance we might lose our soul if we try and gain the whole world. He is telling us that we will lose our soul if we do so, and once we lose it, we will be unable to reacquire it.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (Philippians 3:7)
Things to Reflect on in Light of This Passage:
1. Do I see my nice home, 2 cars, plasma TVs, video game systems, etc. simply as the result of God blessing my hard work? Or are they goals in and of themselves? Are they the things that I work hard to acquire?
2. Do I define myself by my job and my possessions? Or are my job and possessions avenues through which I can glorify Jesus?
3. Do I count all things as loss for the sake of Christ?
4. Would I be any less content if I lost my possessions but retained Christ? What if I lost Christ but retained my possessions?