“My uncle’s new God is no different from the all the gods of our ancestors,” grumbled Mariano. “He demands perfection just like they do, and I cannot attain it!”
Reading Scripture in his Chamula language for the first time, he’d come across Mark 9:33: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands” (NLT). The Ten Commandments were no more encouraging. “I can’t keep those laws!” he said to himself.
Mariano’s people believed in a lower world full of bad spirits, so he could imagine hell. He also knew about sin. He’d tried and failed to rid his life of hate and jealousy and anger. He’d tried to measure up to the capricious demands of the Chamula gods of wood and stone, and failed there, too. He’d tried to appease those gods through ritual drunkenness and animal sacrifices—again without success.
Deeply troubled, he agreed to work with Wycliffe translator Ken Jacobs to translate the Bible for his people. He soon discovered that he loved translation and he was good at it! Together he and Ken translated the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel of Luke, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the Gospel of Matthew.
They were most of the way through the Book of Hebrews when Mariano understood for the first time that Jesus Christ took the initiative—the transformative initiative—that made him right with God. Jesus was the perfect Sacrifice for his sin. “I can hardly believe that what I’m hearing in the Bible is true,” he exclaimed.
“Tell me what you are hearing,” said Ken.
“If my understanding is correct, the Good News is not an order, like the demands that we’ve received from our Chamula gods. It’s an offer!” replied Mariano. “The sins that have kept all the people in the world from God are forgiven. Jesus’ sacrifice has wiped them all away. Because of this, any man, no matter who he is, may get up and go to God. No one will stop him, not even God himself.”
Thinking of his own guilt and hopelessness, he went on. “I’m hearing that a man may act like he’s a good person but it is impossible for him to meet God’s standards. There is really no point in trying,” he said.
“But I am also hearing that, because of Jesus’s sacrifice, God points to Himself saying, ‘Look, I make myself responsible to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.’ He offers to govern our lives and help us live a life that is pleasing to Him – to take us from where we are to where He wants us to go.”
“If that is God’s offer and you wanted to accept it, what would you say to Him?” asked Ken.
Mariano thought for a moment, and his next words turned out to be the perfect way for a Chamula to express the concept of faith: “I would take seriously and hold in high esteem what God had obligated Himself to do.”
For several days after that, Mariano wrestled with the implications of following Jesus. Even though he was acutely aware that he had not governed himself well, he found it hard to give up control of his life.
Finally one morning he told Ken, “That’s what I want!” He turned his life over to God and peace filled his heart. Later he told Ken, “When I heard and understood that the Good News was an offer instead of an order, everything you and I were translating began to make sense.”
In the years that followed, Mariano had many opportunities to help others understand God’s offer of forgiveness and grace. His testimony was clear: “I was an unbeliever who began to hear in my language that God had obligated Himself to take care of my sins and to do for me what I could not do for myself. I took God seriously.”
[A fuller account of God’s transforming work in Mariano’s life and in the life of his Chamula community can be found in David Aeilt’s book, “These Words Changed Everything.”]
I am so glad to see that the story of the San Juan Chamula is still being circulated. I was serving in Mexico when the Chamula NT was dedicated — January 1, 1980 — and was privileged to attend the ceremonies. Seeing the change in 2000 Christians due to God’s Word was almost unbelievable. On New Year’s day, we visited the village; I could sense the oppression in that village. The next day was the dedication in another location where the Believers had settled. Joy and Peace filled the air during the celebration and the feasting afterward. I have a photo of one older man and woman who were hunched over their brand new New Testament, totally absorbed in reading it while totally oblivious to the celebrating going on around them. That day confirmed a strong belief in the value of Bible Translation that has carried me through 40 years of service with Wycliffe. I am happy to know that my part in my field of missionary children’s education has helped a little with hundreds of translations during my tenure of service, and thank God for the opportunity to be a part of the team.