There are certain passages found in the Bible which get “spiritualized.” What I mean by that is that a meaning/interpretation is gleaned from the passage which just isn’t what the passage is saying. There are a variety of reasons why this is done, but one that comes to my mind is this: “spiritualizing” the passage makes what is being said more palatable and acceptable to people.
The passage that is on my mind this morning (it’s my passage for this coming Sunday, BTW) is Matthew 16:14-27. This is the passage in which Jesus says, “If someone desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” I have often heard this passage “spiritualized” by it being taught that this “denying” is denying one’s desires and giving up what one wants to do. Like giving up a habit or some aspect of a lifestyle. This is what is considered “denying one’s self.” What a farce.
Here’s the problem; Jesus is not talking about giving up a habit when he says that anyone following him must deny himself and take up his cross and follow. Just before uttering these words, Jesus straight out shows the disciples that it is necessary for him to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from those opposed to him. Not only would he suffer things from them, they would see to it that he would be killed, but he also revealed that he would arise on the third day. That is the path Jesus is walking.
This is that well-known passage where Peter rebukes Jesus for saying this will occur. Jesus then rebukes him back by saying, “Get behind me, Satan; you are a stumbling block to me, because your mind is not set on the things of God, but the things of men.” The humiliation, pain, and death which Jesus will experience are those things of God, necessary things.
This is the path to which Jesus is referring when he says, “…let him follow after me.”
The way some of the words are translated lessen the true impact of what Jesus is saying here.
The word that is translated as “deny” literally means “renounce claim to.” Hence, Jesus isn’t saying if someone wants to follow him, that person must deny himself something liked, like chocolate or a habit or something else, as if giving up something liked or a habit can even begin to compare to what Jesus is saying here. (BTW, the truth of that last sentence is the reason why I refuse to observe Lent and the giving up of something so I, as I have been told, “can experience what Jesus experienced.” Right, because giving up chocolate or something else for 40 days compares to whipping, beating, and a horrendous death. Not.) He literally is saying that one must renounce claim to actually breathing. A servant/slave has renounced claim to his literal life and handed it over to his/her master. Because of this, if the master says to do something that will end in death, the servant/slave will still do it, because s/he has no claim on his/her life.
Another word is that of “follow.” It literally means “to accompany.” It means to travel with someone, not in a metaphorical sense of following a lifestyle, which is how it is often interpreted, spiritualized, and taught, but in an actual sense, meaning all the way, even to a place that will result in one’s death. Jesus was going to Jerusalem to suffer many things, culminating in death. One who desires to be a disciple must be willing to accompany Jesus and go to the place where he goes, a place where he dies. But it also means that that person accompanies him to the place after death, which is resurrection and newness of life. The Apostle Paul really drives this point home in Galatians 2:19b-20.
The third word is that of “life.” Jesus drives home what he is saying by talking about losing and saving one’s life. He is not talking about a quality of life. He is not talking about a lifestyle. He is talking about literal life – breathing and being alive. The word used is the word that is also translated soul, which equaled the very source of life, not a lifestyle of quality of life.
So, what is Jesus truly saying here? “If you want to follow me, you must give up your right to your very life, not a quality of life, lifestyle, some habit, or desire, hand that claim over to me, and accompany me where I am going and go where I tell you to go, even if you might possibly experience physical death at the hands of those who are along that path or at that place.”
Jesus is not speaking metaphorical in the least. He is speaking to real and actual life and real and actual death.
And why did the “spiritualizing” of these words of Jesus come about? Could it be because, in response to Jesus’ command to accompanying him in going to a place that is not nice or safe or comfortable, but a place that might actually end in death, a command that people do not find palatable, a place where they don’t want to go, people want to be able to say, “But, but, but,” in order to get around what Jesus is truly saying here?
And that is the danger of “spiritualizing.”