Homily – August 28th, 2011
WHAT DOES IT PROFIT…. Matthew 16:26
Some sayings thrust at us. In the scripture we find phrases that catch us and force us to reflect on ourselves. From the lips of Jesus Christ we have zingers which wedge into our private conceits. Our Lord asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and when they answer variously, Jesus tosses a zinger: “But who do you say that I am?”(Matt. 16:13-20). “I am the way and the life and the truth,” says Jesus. And our Lord tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do” (Matthew 16:23). And Jesus also says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
One zinger has influenced many people across centuries. “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt. 16:26). This expression cuts more sharply in its classical expression: For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?
That is a rhetorical question; it requires no response, for the answer appears readily, naturally, obviously. Furthermore, we recognize hyperbole, because I suspect that none of us envision gaining hugely, let alone possessing both the earth and the universe. Would we not settle to simply become the wealthiest person? We really would gladly settle to gain a bit, perhaps not actually achieving greatness, but reaching something on which we have set our desire.
In contrast with our Lord’s demand, we really would not sell our soul, not all of it, to be sure, but we might just slide into selling something of ourselves, some bit of pleasure, some gain in respect, some advance in others’ estimate, some rise above others.
Other people, however, have heard our Lord challenge them, and those people responded quite importantly.
Charles Magnus, Charlemagne (768-814) like other Frankish kings cooperated with the pope, for the pope needed his protection. This warrior king brought into his control what became the Latin Christian world. Yet control shifted from Rome to Aix-la-Chapelle or Aachen near the mouth of the Rhine River, and today our map shows that city to be in Germany. A ruler for forty-seven years, Charlemagne built in that city an octagonal Byzantine-Romanesque church, and here he was buried at age seventy-two. In the year 1000, Otto III opened the imperial tomb and found (it is said) the great emperor as he had been buried, sitting on a marble throne, robed and crowned as in life, the book of the Gospels on his knee and opened to this verse: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?”
Among the challenged, Francis Xavier appears (1506-1552). He came from Spain in 1525 to the famous university in Paris, an able student with preliminary education. Here Xavier studied, a wealthy and capable young man, who enjoyed the intellectual life and who enjoyed the favors of Paris. Having graduated, and having succeeded in philosophical study, Xavier began teaching at Europe’s renowned center for education. The life of a professor beckoned.
Staying at the same college, Ignatius of Loyola became acquainted with Xavier—both, after all, had come from Basque families. Ignatius led Xavier through a spiritual retreat, and no verse from scripture so captured Francis Xavier as this: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Xavier became a famous missionary. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) toward the end of the sixteenth century (c1589) produced the play Doctor Faustus. Weary of philosophy and theology, this professor turns to a devilish magic. “Tis magic,” says Faustus, “Magic that hath ravish’d me” (1:109). Mephistophilis, the agent of Lucifer, will do whatever Faustus will command. So Faustus imagines great doings.
Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I’d give them all for Mephostophilis.
By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And make that country continent to Spain;
And both contributory to my crown;
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave. (3:104-112).
Thus Faustus has obtained whatever in the world he wants, and Lucifer will give him twenty-four years of life, with Mephistophilis to do his bidding. At the end of twenty-four years, Faustus will be taken, body and soul, by Lucifer into eternal hell.
After this contract with the devil, Faustus experiences the seven cardinal sins, but oddly does not enjoy them. And the years pass. In the final scene, Faustus soliloquizes: Ah Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually.
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come (19:134-137). But midnight strikes, and he who, through the devil’s agent Mephistophilis, gained the whole world now suffers the loss of his soul.
With Christopher Marlowe, Faustus experiences a gain over the emperor and a gain over the geography of Africa and of Spain, and he experiences whatever delight might be found in the seven deadly sins. That all occurs in a stage drama which makes me glad that Faustus is not me.
Yet in conscience I consider how in little things I have nickeled and dimed, given pieces of myself for unholy gain.
May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts. May we embrace His invitation to take up His cross and follow him (Matt. 16:27).