I struggle with Attention deficit Disorder, and I regularly get so distracted that I lose my stuff.
For instance, I was recently lining up to board a flight when I noticed I no longer had my carry-on. It had the souvenirs I had purchased for my children, my laptop, and my personal journal. If I went to look for the bag, I’d likely miss my flight. While debating what to do, I thought of the time I left my passport in a taxi in Greece; and the time I left my wallet in a bagel shop in Queens; and the time in Houston when I drove away from Target with my groceries still in the shopping cart.
This would not be the first flight I’d miss because I got distracted. I once had to cancel a speaking engagement because I was so preoccupied watching football on an airport TV that I failed to realize my plane had already loaded, left, and landed (it was a short flight).
Without further contemplation, I bolted back to the airport stores I had visited, darting in and out of shops to no
avail. Then I came to a coffee stand and found a security guard rifling through my bag. I guess in my enthusiasm for a great cup of coffee I had left my other valuables behind. Sometimes my spiritual ADD is just as bad. I’m mortified by how quickly and often I get distracted by things other than God’s kingdom. Jesus’ rhetorical question in Matthew 16:26 strikes me to the core:
And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?
A carry-on bag is one thing, but what if I get so preoccupied pursuing career goals, watching college football, and sipping craft coffee that I lose track of what I did with my soul? As a Greek professor, I cannot help but wonder what the author means when he uses the word “soul” (Greek: psychē). Among other options, this word can refer to (1) physical life, (2) personal identity, or (3) the spiritual seat and center of our life that relates to God.
The first meaning makes sense. Just prior to this verse, Jesus predicts his suffering and death in Jerusalem (Matt 16:21). He was about to lose his physical life in order to gain salvation for the world. This stands in direct contrast to the man in Luke 12:16–21, who was caught up in pursuing treasures for himself. In response to this man, God said:
‘You fool! This very night your life (psychē) will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
Whereas Jesus spent his life getting ready to die for others, this fool lost his life getting ready to live. I do not want to be like that guy.
Nor do I want to become so distracted that I lose my personal identity—who I am, whose I am, and why he has me here (the second meaning of psychē). In the context of Matthew 16, this interpretation works as well. In 16:13–19 Jesus asks the disciples how the world identifies him, and Peter correctly professes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Consequently, Jesus identifies Peter as the rock upon whom the Lord would build his church. Peter, however, almost instantly forgets himself by rebuking his very own master (16:22). Rather than responding like the rock Jesus called him to be, Peter crumbles under the weight of his own agenda.
Most importantly, I do not want to lose my spiritual life—the part of me that knows and relates to God.
I don’t want my heart to die, my mind to wither, or my soul to rot. Although all three meanings of “soul” work, this third one is arguably the most precise for Matthew 16:26.1 It is intended to remind us of the last temptation Jesus faces in Matthew 4:8–10:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Jesus does not get distracted—he turns down Satan’s offer of the world, and reminds us that our life, our soul, is for worshiping and serving the Lord alone. By his example, Jesus encourages us to ignore distractions and hold on to the valuable and lasting possessions of his Father’s kingdom.
Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.
1 Grant R. Osborne, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 637–38.