In 1347, the French port of Calais was under siege by the army of Edward III of England. The townspeople expected Phillip VI of France to rescue them, but help didn’t come, and starvation was at the door. Edward III made the people of Calais an offer. He’d spare the town if six of its prominent citizens would surrender to the British. Eustache de Saint-Pierre, a wealthy leader in Calais, volunteered. He and five others, barefoot and clothed in rags, put nooses around their own necks and walked out of the gate of Calais with the keys to the city in their hands. This moment of heroic self-denial was captured by Auguste Rodin in his sculpture, “The Burghers of Calais.”
The sacrificial act of the Burghers of Calais does not end with the surrender of the six men, the moment of humiliation Rodin captured so brilliantly in his sculpture. Subsequently, King Edward threatened to put them to death, but his wife, Queen Philippa, is said to have intervened on behalf of the six men and their lives were saved.
Self-denial. In 2017, the phrase sounds ancient, an echo of a bygone age. Yet it’s a concept taught by Jesus, and the words are found in a Scripture passage that many of us memorized from the King James version of the Bible. In Matthew 16:24, we learned these words: “Then said Jesus unto His disciples, ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.’”
As we often see in the teachings of Jesus, he gives us a command but offers few details about how to follow that command. “Deny yourself,” Jesus says. But what does that mean? What does He want us to do? Get a Tall rather than a Venti at Starbucks? Give up chocolate for Lent?
Over the centuries, Christians have interpreted His words on a continuum from Lenten sacrifices to the corporal mortification and self-flagellation as demonstrated by Silas in “The Da Vinci Code.” Does Jesus expect us to literally hate ourselves, to deny our identity? Jesus told us we were to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, so it’s doubtful that Jesus was talking about self-hatred.
These words of Jesus might be easier to understand and to follow by hearing them in a contemporary voice, such as the New Living Translation. “If any of you wants to be My follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow Me.” Give up your own way. That’s something twenty-first century people can understand, for we certainly know what it means to demand to get our own way. We want what we want when we want it. We’re not used to giving up our own way, but at least we can imagine what that might look like.
That is what Jesus is asking us to do, to give up our own way, to lay down our life for a friend, to turn the other cheek, to pray for our enemies. In today’s idiom, it’s no longer “all about me.” We are to deny ourselves, not for our own religious pride or self-satisfaction, but for the sake of others.
Paul gives us some insight into the “how-to” in his letter to the Romans, chapter 15 (VOICE). “So now what? We who are strong are not just to satisfy our own desires. We are called to carry the weaknesses of those who are not strong. Each of us must strive to please our neighbors, pursuing their welfare so they will become strong. The Anointed One Himself is our model for this kind of living, for He did not live to please Himself.”
Methodist pastor Dean Snyder explains it this way. “We do not deny ourselves for the sake of self-denial. We take up a cross that claims us and we follow Jesus. We take up a commitment for which we decide that we will live and die. We give ourselves to something. We give ourselves to Christ.”
As the Burghers of Calais experienced, self-denial is expressed in the willingness to give up our own way for the sake of others. Most of us are unlikely to be called upon to make the dramatic sacrifice of these six ancient men. Instead, we are offered small, daily decisions that allow us to choose for our brother and sister, our neighbors, and even our enemies. In doing so, we find for ourselves the truth of Snyder’s words: “We take up the cross, and we follow Jesus, and we lose ourselves. And we find ourselves.”
Major Jo Ann Shade of Ashland, OH, is author of Transformative Change, Honesty, Responsibility, Courage, Humility (Copyright ©2014, Gracednote Ministries) and a regular War Cry contributor.