Today’s readings: Amos 5:6-10 Psalm 90:12-17 Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:17-31
In today’s gospel, we read the story of the only report of a rejection of Christ’s call to follow him. It is a startling story. A well-bred Jew comes to Jesus seeking the secret of eternal life. Jesus gives it to him, and he rejects it. The secret is to put Christ ahead of possessions. It is another way of saying what he had already told his followers shortly before his transfiguration, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) Back then, the image of the follower dragging his cross along encapsulated the message Jesus gives in today’s story when he talks about his followers being comforted by God with blessings to replace the possessions and relationships they lose when they follow him. Today he says that everything they receive in this life comes “with persecutions.”
Today’s text must be very comforting to people who are persecuted when they choose Christ. The words of Jesus let them know that his followers must expect persecution. They need not be surprised when it happens. They can actually count on it. In many cultures new believers seem quite puzzling to their families. In some cases the families harass or even beat the new Christian, and sometimes they throw him out. In Muslim communities, Christians will often be refused employment. Worse, non-Christian family members may lose work if anyone in the family is a Christian. Sometimes Christians literally lose house and land when the community drives them out or burns down their homes.
People who live in western cultures are accustomed to legal protection for their rights to express their faith. They have trouble identifying with the idea of persecution. Even though the secular culture rejects and even insults people of faith, this behavior hardly rises to a level that could be called persecution. A suburban housewife who receives dismissive smirks when she misses a Sunday morning tennis match because she is going to church may lose a few social invitations, but neither her way of life nor her livelihood is at risk.
Not so in countries like Sri Lanka. According the International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 the US State Department reports that although “the constitution [of Sri Lanka] and other laws and policies protect religious freedom in Sri Lanka and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom” there are continuing attacks on Christians in this predominantly Buddhist country. Cultural pressures tend to create situations in which the government either ignores the attacks or prosecutes false allegations without investigation.In a recent Open Doors devotional there was a story about the price of faith and the replacement of property “with persecutions” that is directly parallel to today’s gospel. The story is true, but because of the danger of cultural and perhaps even governmental retribution the names of individuals are fictional.
Arjuna, a young married man with a family, was part of a team of Christians running an orphanage in a rural village of Sri Lanka. One of the girls from the orphanage was sexually abused by a boy in the village. The police investigated and she identified the boy. The police then arrested the boy.
But the villagers rose up-in-arms saying Arjuna sexually assaulted the girl and she just blamed the village boy to protect Arjuna. The villagers found and forced another girl to say she too was assaulted by Arjuna.
Arjuna was ultimately sentenced to fifteen years in jail where he subsequently led a number of other prisoners to Christ.
One of those men who accepted Christ was Menika. After his release from prison, Menika went to seminary and became a church-planting pastor in a small rural town of Sri Lanka.
Arjuna continued in his prison ministry. He led another criminal to Christ who had committed a capital offense and was on death row. His name was Chandra. Before he was put to death, Chandra said to Arjuna, “I’d like to give the deed to my house to someone in ministry…” It just so happened Chandra’s house was in the same small rural town where Menika was beginning to plant a church.
So Chandra gave his house to the “church-planting” former prisoner, Menika, redeemed by God’s grace through Arjuna’s being falsely accused and sent to prison. Amazing grace!
After six and a half years Arjuna was released from prison but because of the false charge against him was unable to work with children. He now has an ongoing ministry in the prisons of Sri Lanka.
In the USA it is hard to imagine that a person might need to give up everything because he chose to serve Christ. Yet if possessions possess the person, they can prevent someone from putting Christ first. The rich man in today’s gospel simply cannot let go of his possessions. He wants eternal life, but not without his possessions in this life. He walks away from Christ’s invitation to be a follower, the only person recorded in the gospels to have rejected that invitation. He turned away to serve his possessions, and many is the person who has done the same thing.
Every Christian must look into his heart and ask if it is Christ on the throne of his heart or just the security of having possessions. Arjuna’s predominantly Buddhistneighbors felt that his faith was a blot on the community, and his work with orphans was a veiled incentive for the orphans to abandon Buddhism and become Christians. When Arjuna was sentenced to prison, he lost all his possessions, and even his life work, because he had chosen to serve Christ. He ultimately experienced some of the gifts Jesus mentioned, but mixed liberally with continued persecution. He had to be willing to let go of everything in order to follow Christ.
This is a challenge for every person who claims to want to follow Christ. Can he possess his possessions loosely so that they do not possess him? Can he submit his possessions to the sovereignty of Christ, put Christ first, let the possessions fall where they will? Must he actually let go of those possessions completely in order to follow Christ? To follow Christ is more than sitting with other Christians every Sunday morning, the secular definition of being religious. When possessions take priority, service to Christ cannot also be first. If possessions come first, then Christ only gets the leftovers – leftover time, leftover money, leftover love. What are you giving to Christ – your all, or your leftovers?