What would Jesus do?
Ashton Weber | Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Growing up as an attendee of Catholic school and Sunday mass, I became quite familiar with Bible stories, especially the narration of episodes in Jesus’ life that are found in the New Testament. Of these recorded episodes in Jesus’ life, one has always been especially confusing to me: the story of the rich young man.
Here’s the gist: Jesus is out doing his thing — preaching and teaching — when someone approaches him and asks a big question. “Teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus starts to list the Ten Commandments, and they respond by explaining that they already do a perfect job of following those. So, what could be missing?
The problem, Jesus explains, is their wealth.
“It will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven,” he tells them. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When I first heard and understood what Jesus was saying in this story, I was probably six or seven years old. The language Jesus used was not vague. He said to get rid of everything. I may have been young, but my family’s socioeconomic status allowed me to live more than comfortably, and I knew at a very basic level that selling everything I had would not be desirable. Everything would include my favorite outfit, all the toys I just got for Christmas and every birthday present I had received or would ever receive. So, yeah, the idea was … not appealing.
It was lucky for me, then, that our priests and catechists told us not to take the story literally. In our community of upper middle class families, we were not called to offer radical mutual aid and live wholly for our community, but instead to use the story as a metaphor. It was often accompanied by a call for donations to the parish and a reminder that it’s possible to live with wealth and still follow this teaching, so long as you tithe.
Imagine my relief! I could keep my presents and enjoy my privileges and I wouldn’t be following Jesus any less than someone who gave everything away. I could live happily and participate in capitalist America without any repercussions. Yay!
I’m sure you can imagine where this is heading, but as I’ve grown older and come to understand the way power and wealth have influenced the Catholic church and its leaders, I’ve begun to make sense of the real reasons why we never took Jesus’ words at face value. They were radical. To follow them would have been a rejection of everything earthly, and it would have been uncomfortable. Our families would have had to live with financial insecurity, which would mean fewer donations for the Church. They would have no longer been able to afford real gold chalices and fancy priestly garments. Bummer.
In realizing the modern Church’s erasure of Jesus’ true teachings as a way of placating conservative Catholics with wealth, I’ve been thinking about the other things I was taught about Jesus and how contradictory they are with this radical Jesus of the New Testament.
Could it be possible that following Jesus in the closest possible way might involve taking his words literally? Could it be possible that living in his footsteps might involve a radical approach to modern politics?
I think yes. Following Jesus means living out his values in whatever time one finds themself. He was enraged by religious leaders who got wrapped up in money and power. He found those who were disenfranchised by religion and the state and welcomed them into his promise of salvation. He sided with the working people over the powerful. His message was so radically progressive that he was crucified.
To live like Jesus is not to be A.D. 33 radical. It is not to live on a pedestal and flaunt one’s Christian values in others’ faces while ignoring their calls for support. It is to look at the moment we live in and ask: Who is disenfranchised by religion now? Who is being ignored by the state now? Who can I support in a way that is so radically progressive, I feel like I am being crucified too?
Last week, I was reading an Notre Dame Football Instagram post that declared “Black Lives Matter.” The comments section is full of messages questioning how Notre Dame could support a “Marxist group,” declaring that “ND is no longer Catholic if it supports [Black Lives Matter].” One of my incredible peers has explained how their content was exceptionally painful to read as a Black member of the Notre Dame family, and I recommend everyone read her piece to understand how our community engages in disenfranchisement.
I would also like to call our community to think more about what these comments mean.
What does it mean for something to be a “Marxist group?” Does this not mean a form of political participation where all members achieve radical equity and non-hierarchical empowerment? Does this not mean rejecting personal wealth and earthly possessions in favor of community support? Might this be in line with Jesus’ calls that we explored earlier?
How is it not Catholic to support an organization that declares consistently and proudly that Black Lives Matter? Isn’t a declaration of solidarity with those who are consistently left behind by the state and underrepresented in the Church exactly what a Catholic who strives to live like Jesus should make?
As we move forward with our school year, I invite the Notre Dame family to join me in rethinking our image of Jesus and taking his words at face value. Allow your imitation of him to radicalize you — then go do what Jesus would do.
Ashton Weber is a junior with lots of opinions. She is an econ major with a minor in sociology and she can often be found with her nose in a book. If you want to chat about intersectional feminism, baking blueberry scones, growing ZZ plants or anything else, she’d love to hear from you. Reach Ashton at [email protected] or @awebz01 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.