In Matthew, Jesus speaks of the spiritual life in terms of profit: what does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and yet lose the soul? While this challenge has certainly inspired philanthropists and almsgivers throughout the centuries, Jesus aimed at more than setting up a foundation or tossing a few coins to a homeless person. The spiritual profit here is far more than personal fulfillment or responsible citizenship. It is the reward of a martyr, the life found when life is lost in Christ’s service. It is the part of a person that cannot be exchanged for money or goods, and is developed through self-renunciation and perseverance in the way of the cross.
The profit of the soul should motivate Christians to be faithful during our earthly life. But, as any investment manager will say, human nature is much more inclined to respond to short-term profits and stimuli than to pursue long-term returns. Grasping the profit of the soul is just as difficult. There is no get-rich-quick scheme in the spiritual life. No profit comes unless it is by denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following faithfully over time.
St. Paul’s list of ethical examples in Romans presents us with a series of “What does it profit?” situations, each illustrative of Jesus’ point. What does it profit to hate what is evil and cling to what is good? It might make simplistic moral sense, but when you ask about the return in worldly terms, compromise is more normal. Obedience could cost everything.
What does it profit to contribute to the needs of the saints or extend hospitality? In worldly terms, these are bottomless money pits. Any needy person can invoke religion and access our pocketbooks. Houseguests might overstay their welcome. Must not our welcoming have a limit? What does it profit us to welcome unconditionally with open-ended hospitality?
What does it profit to bless those who curse us and leave revenge to God? This might be a nice Sunday School concept, but what about that person who cheated us out of thousands of dollars? What about a coworker who seems to exist for no other reason than to make our life difficult? What about that fellow Anglican who fought us in court? What does it profit us to leave off these conflicts, to “suffer ourselves rather to be defrauded”?
Jesus’ question about profit leads us away from thinking of the Christian life as a system of rules to follow and focuses our eyes on real value. What constitutes profit? How will we measure success in the kingdom of God? Are we radically willing to pursue the profit of the soul to the renunciation of self and world?
Look It Up
Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, conceived of charitable giving as eight steps on the Golden Ladder of Charity. What might it mean to apply his insights to each of St. Paul’s exhortations?
Think About It
Consider your spiritual autobiography. If it were graphed like the long-term performance of a financial security, when has your spiritual “stock” been profitable to the kingdom? When has it been less than profitable?