READ : Matthew 10:39
Do you know the saying, “Finders keepers, losers weepers”? When it comes to your most important possession, your own life, Jesus turns it on its head.
Have you ever heard the little rhyme that goes, “Finders keepers, losers weepers”? We used to say that sometimes when we were kids, sort of as a taunt. Someone would accidentally drop a quarter, say. Someone else would suddenly spot it on the ground, swoop down, and scoop it up. “Hey, wait a minute – that’s mine!” the first kid would yell. “Too bad,” the second kid would reply in a gloating tone: “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” In my experience one of two things would then happen next. Either the finder would give it back, saying he was just kidding, or a fight would break out.
Today we are thinking about one of Jesus’ most challenging statements, a statement in which he reverses that little childish taunt. According to Jesus, it’s “losers keepers, finders weepers.” Listen to him: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” That’s what Jesus said to his followers in Matthew 10:39. And he didn’t only say it there and then; he repeated it often. Later in this Gospel, after Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus tells his disciples,
If anyone 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, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).
In Mark 8 he says the same thing to the crowds, adding,
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).
Luke quotes this statement not once but twice:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it Luke 9:24). Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (Luke 17:33).
John has a version too:
Whoever loves his life loses it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25).
A Basic Truth
What can we make of this paradoxical statement? The first thing we can say about it is that it’s not really so great a paradox. As the writer Frederick Beuchner has observed, when Jesus tells us that those who try to save their lives will lose them, he’s not suggesting how life ought to be, he’s telling us how it actually is. Jesus’ statement isn’t some sort of moral principle or pious exhortation, it’s a statement of fact. It’s simply the truth that the very act of trying too hard to get or preserve something often leads to losing that very thing.
Think of the kid who wants a friend so badly he drives everyone away. Picture the aging movie star so desperate to hang on to her beauty she destroys it with a few plastic surgeries too many. Or the guy who will never win the award voted on by his peers because everyone knows he wants it too much. Then there are all those people who devote their lives to the feverish pursuit of pleasure, only to find that the more they consume the less it satisfies, and that it all turns to ashes in the end.
C.S. Lewis wisely observed that happiness can only be found as a by-product. If you make being happy in life your goal, you’ll never attain it. Devoting your life to finding happiness ends up only losing you both in the end, life and happiness. But make some worthwhile goal your life’s ambition – to serve God, for example (the very best goal), by serving others in some way, and you will often find that happiness creeps up and surprises you. Here’s a fine statement by William Barclay, the Bible commentator of a generation ago.
God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If we live carefully, husbanding life, always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort, security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for those for whom Jesus died, we are winning life all the time.
Life-Losing and Life-Saving
So there it is. Not such a great paradox! But Jesus is doing more than just stating a fact in all these sayings about finding or losing our lives. What he’s really getting at is the deeper meaning of life. The word that’s translated “life” in all these texts is psyche [in Greek], which also means “soul.” It’s possible, Jesus is suggesting, that by trying desperately to save our lives we may be losing our souls. A literal example of that would be someone who denies Christ in order to escape persecution or death, thereby preserving their physical life but at the risk of their eternal salvation. That was a real possibility in New Testament times, and it still is in many places in the world today. Jesus’ statement a few verses earlier that those who deny him on earth would be denied by him in heaven (v. 33) is a sober warning of a very real temptation.
I think what Jesus intends in this haunting verse about losing or finding our life is that we reflect on the meaning of life – not in some abstract philosophical sense but in the most basic way. What does the word life mean? What is real life anyway? Is it the life of this world, what most people think of as “the good life,” what’s sometimes called “the American Dream”? That’s a life of prosperity, or at least comfort, with a nice house, new cars, rewarding job, a happy family, plenty of time and money for recreation, and no big worries.
Or is the most important life the life that begins when we take up the cross and follow Jesus? That’s a life that often leads into suffering, hardship, maybe even death. Which one of those is the real life, what the Bible calls elsewhere “eternal life,” and which one is actually the way of death? That’s the question Jesus wants us to ask ourselves when we hear him talking about finders and losers.
It is all too possible to save your life but lose your soul; in fact, to lose your soul by the very act of trying to save or preserve your life. Dr. Faustus is a famous character in western literature. In the original version of his story, Faust is an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth, power, and long life.
But most people don’t make such explicit Faustian bargains. People don’t usually wholesale their souls in one big deal; they retail them, a little at a time. As C. S. Lewis’s famous tempter Screwtape explains, from the demonic standpoint, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without mileposts, without signposts.”
People lose their souls bit by bit, as, for example, when they sacrifice their integrity for some kind of advantage or promotion, or when they sacrifice morality for profit. In his history of the 20th century, Modern Times, historian Paul Johnson explains how Nazi functionaries devised the means of carrying out Hitler’s “final solution” of exterminating the Jews. They found a gas called Zyklon-B which was an efficient killer. Johnson writes,
This was made by a pest-control firm, Degesch . . . a satellite of I.G. Farben. . . . A huge SS order went out for the gas, with instructions to omit the “indicator” component, which warned human beings of the danger. I..G. Farben’s dividends from Degesch doubled, 1942-1944, and at least one director knew of the use being made of the gas: the only protest from Degesch was that omitting the “indicator” might endanger their patent.
(Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p. 414f.)
This is how you lose your soul, but it’s a fool’s bargain. You are doubtless familiar with the sound economic advice to “buy low and sell high.” But what can you possibly buy in the world that is worth the price of your eternal life? The great 19th century Bible teacher J. C. Ryle wrote,
Of all the unprofitable and foolish bargains that man can make, the worst is giving up his soul’s salvation for the sake of this present world. It is a bargain of which thousands . . . have repented, but many, unhappily . . . have repented too late.
Listen once more to Jesus:
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? (Matthew 16:26)
Then how can we save our lives? You can’t save your physical life. It’s slipping out of your grasp, bit by bit, day by day. Years ago I noticed a bumper sticker whose message has stayed with me – “Eat right, stay fit, die anyway.” But if you choose to give your life here and now to Christ, to spend all that you are in following him, he will give it back to you in this world renewed and made purposeful, and in the world to come, transformed and glorified. If you live for Christ and his kingdom you gain eternal life; if you live for yourself you end up with nothing.
Remember Jesus’ rule: losers keepers, finders weepers.