“Peter began to tell him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said, ‘there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more, now at this time – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and eternal life in the age to come.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There is a plague in our nation. It passes easily from person to person. It is no respecter of politics or religion. It cares not about skin color or socioeconomic status. It goes after both the very young and the very old. We don’t have any natural protections against it and can only keep ourselves safe by monumental feats of effort. This is made easier when we are surrounded by people who are similarly committed to evading its effects, but even that doesn’t offer perfect coverage. What am I talking about? Well, it’s not COVID. I’m talking about the disease of “whataboutism.” When Jesus told the disciples how hard it was for rich people to follow Him, they all got hit with a bout of whataboutism. Let’s talk about this together.
The disciples here were struggling. Jesus had taken them way out to the very edges of what their brains could process and was trying to push them even beyond that point. They were doing their best to keep up, but it was taking all of their reserves just to stay afloat. All in the span of a pretty short while they had had several major ideas thrust in their faces. But it wasn’t that these were simply big ideas, these were big ideas presented in ways that ran completely counter to how they had been taught their entire lives to think.
First, a man professed to keeping the Law perfectly, but it seemed that wasn’t enough to gain him the prize of eternal life. Second, Jesus revealed that wealth is not the obvious sign of God’s favor they had always thought it to be. Third, Jesus revealed salvation is not something that can be gained by human effort. One of these ideas would have been enough to challenge their understanding of the world. All three at once completely overwhelmed their ability to make sense of anything anymore.
Peter finally spoke up (because Peter always spoke up) and revealed that in trying to wrap his mind around everything Jesus had said, he had left himself open to whataboutism. Of course, I probably have you wondering right now what exactly whataboutism is. Whataboutism is the disease of the mind and heart that comes when we are trying to justify ourselves in the face of the offenses of another person that aren’t so different from our own potential offenses. Let me put that another way: When another person gets caught doing something that either we have done before or else we’ve done something pretty similar before, and we sense the big scythe of judgment swinging in for a blow, we immediately go into overdrive to justify why the scythe can’t possibly be coming for us as well. This is whataboutism.
We think (or say out loud) something in roughly this formula: I may have done X, but what about the Y this other person has done. Sometimes, though, when we’re pretty sure we are guilty of whatever it is, we’ll change the formula up just a bit. People who have done X definitely deserve that judgment, but what about the Y that I’ve done. By comparing ourselves favorably with the actions or words or thoughts of this other person who is clearly deserving of the judgment they are going to receive, we feel we have sufficiently ducked out of the way so we don’t get caught up in the righteous net that is falling.
Jesus had told this man to sell everything and follow Him. When he refused, Jesus said that rich people have the most trouble getting into the kingdom of God. Then, He completed the hat trick by saying salvation is something we can only manage with God’s help and not our own efforts. Peter and the guys were starting to feel the heat. They had spent their lives trying to keep the Law. That wasn’t enough. They were all seeking to be rich and powerful (something John and James were still trying to do just a few days after this whole exchange). And their whole conception of salvation, thoroughly shaped by the only culture they had ever known, was that salvation was something you could work your way into having. Peter grabbed hold of the only thing that seemed solid. But what about what we have done? We have left everything and followed you. Doesn’t that mean we’re okay?
Now, doing this kind of thing is normal. Everyone does it. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. Your kids do it. Your parents raised you on it. We rarely realize it’s what we’re doing but, we do it all the same. And it never actually helps. It doesn’t resolve the issue. It doesn’t excuse whatever it is we need to own. It’s just a distraction and it won’t last. Eventually, we will have to come back around and deal with our stuff. But what I think is most interesting to me here is how Jesus responds to Peter.
Jesus doesn’t challenge Peter’s assumptions even as He doesn’t back off at all from what He had said. He doesn’t engage Peter’s plea on a personal level. He keeps His sights set right on the kingdom of God. At the same time, He gives encouragement to the direction Peter is thinking. Peter says, what about us? Jesus says, you’re on the right track.
Look again at how He did it. “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more, now at this time – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and eternal life in the age to come.” Are you with Him here? Let me see if I can spell that out with a bit more simplicity. If you’ve given up something, anything, for the sake of the Gospel, it was not a net loss. Your investment will be richly rewarded.
And at this point, it’s tempting and common for us to roll our eyes a bit. I know, I know, treasures in heaven. Blah, blah, blah. That’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t really do much to take the sting out of the sense of loss I’m feeling right now. Except, that’s not what Jesus said. He mentioned eternal life – the ultimate treasure in heaven – there at the end, but everything He says before that is not said with the eventual kingdom in mind. He’s talking in entirely more contemporary terms than that. He said explicitly that whoever gives up something for the sake of the kingdom (that’s a really important caveat, by the way, and one we can easily fool ourselves into thinking we’ve met when we haven’t really), is going to see a return on their investment “now at this time.” Normally we might say that’s shamelessly worldly thinking, except it was Jesus saying it. And He said it directly in response to Peter’s whataboutism.
So, what do we do with this? We understand this: The rewards for kingdom living are not something we have to wait on to start enjoying. Eternal life is not something that is a solely future reward for present self-denials. Following Jesus will not just make your life better when the kingdom comes. It will make your life better now. What you lose to follow Him you will gain back “now at this time.” Now, will there be some sort of a one-to-one correspondence? Perhaps. Jesus seems to suggest something along those lines.
This, of course, just raises a nagging question: Where will these rewards and paybacks come from? How will we receive a father back who rejects us because we’ve embraced the faith and he doesn’t want us to? If we lose our family, will we somehow be magically reconciled? Surely there are folks whose families have rejected them and then stubbornly stuck to their rejection in spite of all attempts to call them to repentance and faith. There are folks who have seen life savings lost because of their embrace of Jesus who never again experienced the same kind of wealth. So, where is this return going to be experienced?
Frustratingly, Jesus doesn’t say, but can I make a suggestion? This return is going to be experienced in the church. Every worldly loss we absorb for the sake of the kingdom will be returned to us with a fantastic amount of interest in the church. We have family there. We have friends there. We have resources there. We have love and acceptance there. We have community there. There is nothing we might lose for the Gospel the church cannot provide for us in compensation that goes well beyond the original loss. This is why following Jesus apart from the church would have been a nonsense idea for the New Testament authors. That’s a lie of the enemy that is seducing many otherwise potentially potent believers away from kingdom difference-making today. We must resist it. When it comes to losses sustained because of our commitment to the Gospel, we don’t have to rely on whataboutism. As we remain faithful to our call, there is nothing we lose that we won’t gain in return. Jesus guaranteed it.