October 11 2015 Reflection

20th Sunday after Pentecost
‘Cost of Discipleship’

BIBLE READINGS
Mark 10:17-31

Hebrews 4:12-13

REFLECTION

John Pedley was a millionaire from the UK who used to life a luxurious and swinging lifestyle. But an alcohol-fuelled accident left him on the verge of death and he had a profound change of heart. He found God and was inspired by the charity work that his friend did in Uganda.

He wanted to emulate his friend, so he literally gave all of his wealth away. He sold his $1.5 million farm house and business and used the money to move to a house made out of mud in Uganda to start a charity for the local orphans. He felt that it was a cathartic release from his previous lifestyle.  When asked whether he was really serious about it, he said, “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life.”[1]

This man’s life seems to be in direct contrast to the life of the rich man in our Mark reading today. Our story from Mark begins with the Narrator telling us that Jesus was on “his way again” (Mark 10:17 - GNT). This may sound rather trivial, but nothing is trivial when we study the Gospel closely.

To be “on the way” is not only a description of location; it has a particular meaning. Remember that John the Baptist was called to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy to “open the way” for God (Mark 1:2-3 - GNT). In Acts, the followers of Jesus were known as “followers of the Way of the Lord” (9:2 - GNT). So, by mentioning “the way” at the beginning of his story, Mark must have wanted his readers to know that the story was about discipleship.[2]

Now the rich man in the story seemed to be genuine. His respect of Jesus and his motive seemed to be sincere. His question seemed to be nothing like the kind of question that the religious leaders often asked Jesus; question to trap him. And this genuineness was reciprocated in the way Jesus would later respond: he lovingly looked at the man (v. 21).

But Jesus still gave a surprising answer. First, he told the rich man to follow the second part of the Ten Commandment; the part concerning human-to-human relationships: respect your parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not tell false accusation, do not envy other people’s belonging (Exodus 20:12-17).

The man answered that he had done all those things since his younger years. He had been obedient to God’s law as it was given through Moses; yet, there was still something missing in his life. He was not satisfied with his life.

This is surprising because this man had everything in his life. He was rich, well-behaved, and responsible. He was a good person. Yet, there was something wrong with his life. He had an ‘itch’ that he couldn’t ‘scratch’, so he came to Jesus, hoping that Jesus would ‘scratch’ his ‘itch’.

But Jesus didn’t give the kind of ‘scratch’ that he wanted. He told the rich man to sell everything that he had, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The man was disappointed with the answer. He must have expected an answer that would not require him to sacrifice anything, especially his possessions. So he chose to go “the other way” instead of following Jesus “on his way”.

Friends, there is a personal cost in following Jesus. Discipleship will always involve a sacrifice. Jesus himself told his disciples that entering into God’s Kingdom was not easy, whether they were rich or not (v. 24). So the most important thing here, I believe, is priority: what is the priority of our life? Being a disciple of Jesus or being, doing, or having other things?

Let us go back to the question that the rich man asked: “What can I do to achieve an eternal life?” But, what is “eternal life”? Is it life after death in heaven? Well the rich man was definitively hoping for something here on earth, not after he was dead! So, I believe, eternal life is living in the presence of God here on earth as it is in heaven. And Jesus told us that the way to be in God’s presence is to have God as the first priority of our life.

One person that can teach us about having God as the centre of our life is Francis of Asisi. Born in Italy around 12th century, he was the son of a rich merchant who owned farmland around the city of Asisi in Italy where the family lived.

Indeed, Francis grew up in a privileged environment. He was spoilt, enjoyed indulging himself in fine food, wine, and wild celebration. By the age of 14, he left school and became a rebellious teenager who liked to drink, party, and break the city’s curfew (sounds like a ‘normal’ teenager nowadays).

But everything changed after he was captured as a prisoner of war in a battle. His life was spared because his captors were hoping that they would get a decent ransom from his wealthy father. He was thrown into a dungeon prison for nearly a year before his father finally paid his ransom.

Story has it that one day, as he was riding his horse after he was released form the prison, he saw a leper on the road. Usually, he would avoid such person, but this time Francis did not only come to the leper; he embraced and kissed him. He said later that he felt a sense of indescribable freedom after embracing and kissing the leper.

Francis’ life had indeed changed completely. He spent more time praying and helping the poor people. This was the time when he heard God’s voice, calling him to rebuild the church and live a life of extreme poverty.

He obeyed the call. He refused his father’s wealth and swapped his clothes with a simple rough tunic. He served the lepers and other vulnerable people and identified himself with them.

At the time, his lifestyle was quite radical and stood in contrast with the leaders of the church. In Francis’ time, the church, including the people who were the heads of the church like the Bishops, was tremendously rich.

This concerned people like Francis much. He felt that the long-held apostolic ideal of the church had been lost. Francis felt that it was his mission to restore Jesus’ original values and vision of the church.

His teaching and lifestyle and charisma drew thousands of people to him to be his followers. They would later be known as the Franciscan friars. Francis of Asisi died at the age 44. Two years later, he was canonised as a Saint of the church.[3] The current Pope took the name Francis to honour him and because, just like Francis of Asisi, he wants the church to be the church of the poor and for the poor.

Friends, we don’t have to live a life like Francis or to join his Franciscan Order to be a true follower of Christ. But we can learn from him. Unlike the rich man in Mark’s Gospel who rejected Jesus’ call, Francis accepted the call enthusiastically.

So friends, what is it that God is calling you to do? Who are the people or the places that God calls you to serve?

God’s word is not always easy and comforting. It exposes our old excuses, prejudices, ‘nonsenses’, hypocrisies, and greediness that stop us from doing what God wants us to do. Like the author of the letter to the Hebrews said, the word of God “is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrew 4:12 - GNT).

Indeed, God’s word can confront us, just like it confronted those rich men in Mark’s Gospel and in Asisi. They both were challenged to make a decision: one made the wrong decision; the other did not. We too are challenged every day to make a decision: to go the other way or to follow Jesus on his way. Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Mark V., 10 Refreshing Stories Of Rich People Who Gave Their Fortunes Away, on

http://listverse.com/2013/12/24/10-refreshing-stories-rich-people-who-gave-their-fortunes-away/ (Uploaded: December 24 2013 - Retrieved: October 9 2015)

[2] Mark G. Vitalis, Commentary on Mark 10:17-31, Retrieved: October 6 2015 on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2640

[3] St. Francis of Assisi Biography, Retrieved: October 9 2015 on http://www.biography.com/people/st-francis-of-assisi-21152679