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Racism and The Cost of Discipleship

Illustration by Micah Kandros

In the Gospel of Matthew, the disciple recalls a time when Jesus decided to leave a large group of sick and needy people. There is a curiosity to Jesus action, why would he leave when people clearly wanted him there? His fame was growing, and people were coming. He was in an ideal position of influence. Here was his chance to heal, meet people and spread his message.

But instead of taking advantage, Matthew tells us that, “when Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake" (Matt 8:18). He saw a crowd, and decided to leave. This cannot be understated, so let me say it one more time… Jesus saw the crowd and decided to leave.

Jesus understood something that we often do not. Crowds mean nothing. Crowds will gather for fickle, vain and often selfish reasons. A crowd of curious people will attract more curious people. Within a crowd, truth can be drowned out by sensationalism and exaggeration. Why is the crowd growing? Is it because they have understood, or because of something else? Likely the latter. Jesus leaves because he is more interested in quality than quantity.

This is highlighted by how Jesus responds to two men who tried to leave with him.

Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:19-22)

Jesus response to the first man is pretty straight forward. But westerners have a hard time understanding the second man. In short, the man’s father was not dead, nor was he sick (at least we are not lead to believe this). In Jewish culture, families accompany the dead to their final resting place after they die. But when was this mans father scheduled to die? Who can know that. Basically, what he is telling Jesus is, “let me stay with my father until he dies at an undetermined time in the future. Then I will follow you.”

The first man was ready to go now but had not calculated the cost.

The second man wanted to follow at some undetermined time in the future.

This is why Jesus is leaving the crowd, because these are the kinds of people in the crowd. Those who follow because of exaggeration and sensationalism, not because they truly understand the cost of discipleship.

In his timeless book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes it clear that grace is free, but it is not cheap. As Richard Foster sums it up, “The grace of God is unearned and unearnable, but if we ever expect to grow in grace, we must pay the price of a consciously chosen course of action which involves both individual and group life.”[1]

Have we become so accustomed to “cheap grace” that we instinctively shy away from more demanding calls to obedience? As Bonhoeffer says, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.”[2] Grace is free, transformation is free, accepting Gods invitation into new life is free, but it is costly. It requires a cross. It’s an opportunity cost that we take, recognizing that by changing direction, there will be consequences.

But what does this have to do with race? Standing up for justice, speaking out against injustice and racism, just as Bonhoeffer did in Nazi Germany, is part of discipleship. The cost of discipleship might mean something different for all of us, since we are all part of different social classes and groups but we are not exempt from calculating the cost. For Bonhoeffer the cost of discipleship was being killed by the state. For Martin Luther King the cost of discipleship was being assassinated. What will it be for you?

Ask yourself, why is the giving of money unquestionably recognized as an element in Christian devotion, but speaking out against injustice so disputed? A troubling question especially considering how we have more evidence from the Bible for speaking out against injustice as we have for giving money. Perhaps in our affluent society justice involves a far larger sacrifice than the giving of money.[3]

If we cannot side with the oppressed now, condemn racism, and cry out for justice, then we are part of the crowd Jesus leaves behind.

[1]Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Special Anniversary Edition (Harper One), p. 8).

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 47.

[3] Foster p. 54

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