“Save Yourself!” is the prevailing cry of those gathered around Jesus as he hangs on the cross. The religious leaders question why Jesus isn’t saving himself. The soldiers mock him by exclaiming: “Save yourself!” And one of the criminals crucified with him cries out: “Save yourself, and while you’re at it, save me, too!” Everyone is showing their true colors: It’s all about their self-preservation. The religious leaders get the Romans to crucify Jesus so they can preserve their peace with the Roman military occupation. The soldiers preserve their own self-justification for executing a person who they know is an innocent man. And the criminal, he’s just trying one last ditch attempt to preserve his own life. So, it’s “Save yourself!” all around. Easier said than done.
This inclination for self-preservation is deeply ingrained in our neurons and DNA from evolution. It’s so deep in us we don’t even think about it or reflect on whether it’s right in every circumstance. Well, occasionally we do. There are certainly times when we humans have cast aside our strangle-hold on self-preservation to act selflessly. For example, we hear stories of people running into, and not away from, burning buildings in order to save others. But such examples aren’t the norm for our behavior.
We’re more likely to do what’s good for us, what preserves our safety, or preserves our status, or preserves our position of privilege. And then we justify it by concluding that if it’s good for our preservation, then it’ll be good for others as well. We even created a phrase to justify this. We called it “enlightened self-interest,” which follows this logic: If our “self-interest” is “enlightened,” then it must be good, after all, it’s “enlightened” (Paging Mr. George Orwell!). My hunch is that most of us vote in elections for our “enlightened self-interest” and not for what’ll benefit the most vulnerable and needy in our society. When it comes to self-interest, we’re quite determined.
We spend much of our time on this earth seeking to “save ourselves.” And much of the rest of the time, we spend finding ways to justify ourselves to others so we won’t appear overly selfish as we do so. We give money to the church or charities from our abundance, we volunteer here and there for a good cause, but not in a way that demands much sacrifice from us and certainly not in a way that would ever threaten our comfort or limit our self-satisfaction, let alone our self-preservation.
That’s why what Jesus doesn’t do on the cross is so mind-boggling to those of us bent on self-preservation. It’s why those around him that day were equally stumped and incredulous. He doesn’t save himself. Afterward, most concluded: “He was just a loser.” We might further conclude that any Son of God with an ounce of “enlightened self-interest” would find a way to make Good Friday a “win-win” for everybody. “Let’s just find a way to leverage that huge salvation thing for all of us, but in a way that won’t really cost anybody anything.” But Jesus would have none of that. He embraced being a loser, so that he’d save self-preservationists like you and me. Jesus isn’t a winner. He’s a loser. And we have God alone to thank for that.