For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
The man who doubts the integrity of all other men is likely to say that every man has his price, meaning of course that a person’s loyalty or love or support can be bought. Such a verdict puts a person’s soul, his essential honor and character and being, on a level of houses and land and other transferable commodities. We expect to see signs on houses which say “for sale,” and we are not shocked when we see “for sale” signs on automobiles. We are dismayed at the thought of a price tag on a person walking down the street. Our nation has never gotten over the degrading bitterness of slavery. Perhaps there was nothing more debasing about slavery than the idea of human beings on auction blocks. A revulsion sweeps through us when we see pictures of men and women and children being examined and bought like horses or cattle, but even slavery could not buy and sell the soul. There is abundant evidence that many in the cruel clutches of the slave trader still retained their essential integrity and personhood. While not even slavery could contract the sale of the soul, each of us had better hear the words of Jesus, for some of us are selling our souls too cheaply.
Charlemagne, the wise and benevolent ruler of the Franks, reigned forty-six years and left a record of loyalty to faith and to education. When he died, this wise and honored king was not buried as if sleeping in his shroud in a reclining position; rather he was buried seated on a throne in robes of state with an open Bible on his knee, one dead cold finger pointed to the words of Jesus that live on when kings are dead and empires are dust. “For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Now every person is for sale. It is a matter of for what or how much. We are negotiable. We may attempt to stand on dead center doing no business in loyalty and allegiance and love, stubbornly trying to be completely neutral, but neutrality is not our natural estate. No one can assume neutrality in the real or the physical world, for instance, by saying, “I will neither eat nor fail to eat. I will be neutral,” or “I will neither breathe nor fail to breathe. I will be neutral.” As in the physical so in the spiritual we are made to be used, to love and to be loved, to spend and to be spent. The matter is not whether our souls are to be claimed or owned by somebody or something else. The question is rather by whom or what. Yes, our souls are for sale.
In order to find out whether they are bringing a fair price we ought to examine the commodity. What is a human soul? How do we measure its worth? A human soul is the totality of our personhood. It is the essential “I” and “you” with all the wrappings pulled away. We are, beneath flesh and bone, persons who love and hate, who worship and work, who respond to God and to humanity, who dream and dare. How much is that worth? Well, we need to examine a little more who we are before we set a price tag on ourselves. I take it that what we call the most ordinary person is an amazing and fantastic wonder. Have you ever considered that God has fixed you so that there never has been another you? Never your identical likeness in the long sweep of history. There never was another you with the same emotional balance, the exact talents or a precisely similar mind and imagination, no, and there never will be another you. If the world is to go on for another millennium or ten the world will never again see your exact duplicate.
Even more important than this vastly astonishing truth is the fact that God has dealt with us. Each of us is made in the image of God so that deep down underneath there is an essential likeness to God in us, an instinct toward righteousness underneath our proneness to evil and wrong, an instinct toward holiness underneath our tendency to profane and defame our life. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?” This is what we are worth, and it is this truth we must take into account when we ask the question: What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
Consider again our destiny. Every human person, like God, is eternal. This is our faith. The persons we really are, are scheduled to travel on beyond our flesh. This body will weaken and decay and die, but our personhood, our soul quality is to go on and live as long as God shall live. When mountains have crumbled and the earth goes up in flames and the sky melts with fervent heat our essential personhood is to continue. This is the blessed hope of the Christian faith.
I submit to you in the light of this that too many of us sell our souls too cheaply. There are men and women who place no higher value upon their souls than a few dollars or some clothes or a little earthly honor or somebody’s praise. There is nothing that perishes and rots which is a fair price in exchange for what does not die. I must be honest for a moment, and if morbid in order to be honest then make the most of it. All of the earthly prizes and holdings that we have must be torn from our hands by the passage of time and the clutch of death. All must go. The fresh beauty of a young face fades with the wrinkles of the rapidly moving years. The quick bouncy step is slowed by the weight of passing time. Friends separate and kinfolk die. There are needs of the soul which money cannot buy and yearnings which honors cannot satisfy. Think now of the little things we settle for, a shiny car out of style next week, a new fashion we would be ashamed to be seen in next year, some little honor that turns to dust. Let the width and breadth of the earthly prize vastly expand to whatever dimension you can conceive and you know you are worth more still than the baubles and prizes, the petty distinctions and false values. Hear the word of Jesus as he asks, “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Midst the din and strife of our time nothing is clearer than the truth that God is our only hope. All else is sinking sand. Gain the whole world. What is it? I will tell you. The whole world is a vast nervous disorder, apparently headed for flames and destruction. Modern science and human sinfulness have combined to pull the mask of splendor off this ugly doomed world. All of us smiled in a superior way at the old ideas of “wars and rumors of wars,” of signs in the sun and the moon dripping in blood and the earth going up in smoke. Now we stand with the possibility of nuclear fate too horrible to imagine. The rocket juggling and missile waving going on in our world cast a long dark shadow over the future of the earth.
Let us not be too grim. Maybe the world’s best days are on ahead. Still destruction edges near in one way or another. Trouble is in the air. I know of no shelter except Jesus Christ. He is the only hiding place from the tempest, the only shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Safe where? Safe nowhere except in the care and keeping of God. I hear people speak of dreadful possibilities who know the Lord, and what do they say? Well, one says of some cosmic replacement, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” or another contemplating his own demise said, “But we know that if this earthly house is dissolved we have another building not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” What will a man give in exchange for his soul? There is nothing except God that is worth all that we are.
Words of Gardner Taylor