Then someone came to [Jesus] and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And [Jesus] said to him…if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The young man said, “I have kept all these, what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
– Excerpts from Matthew 19:16-22
I’ve had two fairly lengthy conversations with African American coworkers recently. One was with a chaplain and the other with a social worker from the hospice where I work. We discussed many things: work, the pandemic, and the recent killing of George Floyd by police and how life feels in the Twin Cities metro when you are Black. I opened up the subject, but it took very little. The social worker, a man, gave a small laugh, and said, “Ruth, this is nothing new if you’re a Black man. You just learn to keep your head down and keep moving.” As we continued to talk about his experiences, he told me, “My white friends keep asking me, what can we do?! But when I tell them what to do, they say they can’t do it.” I asked him, “What are you telling them?” And he said, “Stand up to a racist. Call it out when someone says or does something racist.”
“Stand up to a racist. Call it out when someone says or does something racist.”
As a white person, I knew exactly why people said they couldn’t do it. It makes others in our own circles—friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, church members—hurt, angry, and defensive. It puts those relationships at risk, it makes our lives less peaceful, we don’t want people to be mad at us, we don’t want to be uncomfortable, and most of us aren’t practiced at pushing back on unacceptable comments and behaviors. I will confess here and now, that I have failed at this as often as anyone I know.
In the parable of the rich young man, like a white person who asks their Black friend what they can do to resist racism, the young man approaches Jesus with a similar question: “What must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus tells him to obey the commandments, but the rich young man pushes further. He seems to have a deeper desire for good and a willingness to be challenged. “Seems” being the operative word here. Perhaps he likes to think of himself a certain way, as someone who deeply loves God, or as someone who strives to be more than he is, or even as someone who locates himself within a certain social group (perhaps like a modern day progressive). Jesus, following the young man’s lead, goes on to tell him what more he can do to be perfect. He says, “Sell everything, give to the poor, and follow me.”
He seems to have a deeper desire for good and a willingness to be challenged. “Seems” being the operative word here.
Simple, but clearly not so simple. And the rich young man falters. Maybe he relied on his riches to feel secure, or have self-esteem, or fit into a social group. Maybe he thought becoming “more perfect” as a pathway to gain status rather than give it up.
The CEO of the healthcare organization I work for made a couple of videos addressing the murder of George Floyd. In one, in a conversation with the Director of Diversity, the white CEO asked her African American colleague, with a certain level of frustration in her voice, “What can we do to make it STOP?” The CEO was referring to racism, which most white people agree is harming people of color. But, like the rich young man, when they hear that the only real answer involves discomfort, social risk, and the willingness to put others’ needs first, many walk away sad.
Many want change at no personal cost. But there is always cost. For white people, to stand up to racism may mean family discord, the loss of friends, discomfort. To walk away instead means losing integrity for not doing what they know is right. And it’s at the cost of the very lives of Black men, women, and children. As individuals and as a society, we pay one way or another. White people can take up their responsibility or they can walk away in grief, leaving the evil of racism for others to bear.
Like the rich young man, when they hear that the only real answer involves discomfort, many walk away sad.
In the parable of the rich young man, Jesus calls us out—out of ourselves— to love others and to risk living lives of integrity, to be shining examples of what we believe in. Simple, but not so simple. All are invited to follow, but Jesus never promised it would be without cost.