Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cost of Discipleship

28th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 10:17-30)
October 11, 2009

Our Gospel today begins with the most basic and decisive question: “What must I do to share in everlasting life?” (Mark 10:17). Christians should not only ask themselves this question. Even more important, they should always raise it every day, so they will always have some direction in their lives. We always ought to have a reason for living—and a correct one. But it is important to get the sense of the question. The inquiry does not assume that eternal life is a reward for our work. Both in Judaism and in Christianity, eternal life, life with God, life in the Kingdom of God —this is a gift. We do not work for it. But this offer of God requires our response. How do we respond to his offer?

It is unfortunate that many continue to hold false views on the relationship between God’s offer and our response. For some, God is a God who is a heavenly bookkeeper. He keeps a ledger in which good acts are entered on the credit side. They think that as long as the trial balance shows that the credit side is weightier than the debit side, they will inherit eternal life. For others, the relationship is basically concerned with the “As-long-as-I-do-not-harm-anyone” mentality. As long as they do not offend their neighbor, they are of the belief that God will reward them. It is like saying that a good driver is one who has never been involved in a vehicular accident, or that a good engineer is one whose projects have never been destroyed by earthquake.

When we hold these or similar views, we are like the man in today’s Gospel. At first blush, we would think he is an ideal man. Because love of God is obviously expressed in the love of neighbor, all that Jesus asked him was about the second segment of the Decalogue (Mark 10:19; cf Exod 20:12-16). And the man said he kept all these since childhood. Nobody could be more ideal. But before we venture to imitate him, we could probably ask: has it occurred to us that we fulfill the commands simply because we live in comfort? Would it be different if we were living in deprivation? Or, have we consciously made a decision to follow them, or we are able to follow them simply because we do not have the opportunity to do the opposite? We do not steal, for example, simply because there is nothing to be stolen? The truth is, we can follow many commands of the Decalogue by doing nothing.

But the Gospel is about doing something. In Mark, a Christian must go beyond the Old Testament morality, and therefore we have to take a further step. Not only that we do nothing against the commandments; even more important, we imitate Jesus, following his footsteps. That is discipleship. And that what is distinctively Christian. (To follow the Ten Commandments is not distinctively Christian. The Jews have them. The Muslims observe them.) But discipleship is about renunciation of our selves. Eternal life is for those who are ready to lose their life: “Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will preserve it” (Mark 8:35). And our Gospel, being like the previous Sunday’s, which is found in the Markan section of the instructions on discipleship, is a commentary on this text. The renunciation of our selves includes the renunciation of our possessions. That is the price to be paid for following Jesus. That is our response to the offer of eternal life. It is unfortunate that we have so many decent people who call themselves Christians but have not embraced discipleship. They have not gone beyond the Old Testament ethics. For them, not harming anyone else, or fulfilling the external signs of being Catholic—that is already enough. They lack something: the renunciation of themselves to allow the Spirit to work in them.

Of course, it is often argued that as part of our renunciation, we contribute something to the poor. But often we do this in terms of our definition of what renunciation shall consist of. Often enough, as long as it does not cost us much, we allow ourselves to be deprived of something—our spare cash. Inside, however, we do not really want to let go of our comfort and fabulous lifestyle. We are like the man in the Gospel who could not accept the challenge of discipleship because we really hold on to our possessions. Not surprisingly, Jesus told his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God ” (Mark 10:23). And to make sure that his disciples heard it correctly, he added: “My sons, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God ! It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God ” (Mark 10:24b-25). Clearly, discipleship is not about doing nothing; on the contrary, it is about doing something: it requires the renunciation of ourselves, and of what we have so that our ultimate value will be none other than Jesus and his kingdom. Only then can we walk in accord with God’s will, and, having truly responded to God’s offer in grace, experience eternal life.

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