Two of Bonhoeffer’s Most Convicting Paragraphs

The following is from Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship (usually known as “The Cost of Discipleship” in English, although the original title in German was simply Nachfolge).

Bonhoeffer considers how we might respond to Jesus if Jesus were to show up and make the same kinds of concrete commands that he did in the Gospels.

NOTE: I’ve taken two paragraphs in the original and broken them up into smaller chunks to facilitate reading here.

If Jesus Christ were to speak this way [he told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions] to one of us today through the Holy Scripture, then we would probably argue thus:

Jesus is making a specific commandment; that’s true. But when Jesus commands, then I should know that he never demands legalistic obedience. Instead, he has only one expectation of me, namely, that I believe.

My faith, however, is not tied to poverty or wealth or some such thing. On the contrary, in faith I can be both—rich and poor. The main concern is not whether or not I have any worldly goods, but that I should possess goods as if I did not possess them, and inwardly I should be free of them. I should not set my heart on my possessions.

Thus, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions!” But what he intends is that it is not important if you actually do this literally, outwardly. You are free to keep your possessions, but have them as if you did not have them. Do not set your heart on your possessions.

Our obedience to Jesus’ word would then consist in our rejecting simple obedience as legalistic obedience, in order to be obedient “in faith.”

This is the difference between us and the rich young man. In his sadness, he is not able to calm himself by saying to himself, “In spite of Jesus’ word, I want to remain rich, but I will become inwardly free from my riches and comfort my inadequacy with the forgiveness of sins and be in communion with Jesus by faith.” Instead, he went away sadly and, in rejecting obedience, lost his chance to have faith. The young man was sincere in going away. He parted from Jesus, and this sincerity surely had more promise than a false communion with Jesus based on disobedience.

Apparently Jesus thought that the young man was unable to free himself inwardly from his wealth. Probably the young man, as a serious and ambitious person, had tried to do it himself a thousand times. The fact that at the decisive moment he was unable to obey the word of Jesus shows that he failed. The young man was sincere in parting from Jesus.

By the way we argue, we distance ourselves fundamentally from a biblical hearer of Jesus’ word.

If Jesus said: leave everything else behind and follow me, leave your profession, your family, your people, and your father’s house, then the biblical hearer knew that the only answer to this call is simple obedience, because the promise of community with Jesus is given to this obedience.

But we would say: Jesus’ call is to be taken “absolutely seriously,” but true obedience to it consists of my staying in my profession and in my family and serving him there, in true inner freedom.

Thus, Jesus would call: come out!—but we would understand that he actually meant: stay in!—of course, as one who has inwardly come out.

Or Jesus would say, do not worry; but we would understand: of course we should worry and work for our families and ourselves. Anything else would be irresponsible. But inwardly we should be free of such worry.

Jesus would say: if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. But we would understand: it is precisely in fighting, in striking back, that genuine fraternal love grows large.

Jesus would say: strive first for the kingdom of God. We would understand: of course, we should first strive for all sorts of other things. How else should we survive? What he really meant was that final inner willingness to invest everything for the kingdom of God.

Everywhere it is the same—the deliberate avoidance of simple, literal obedience.

How is such a reversal possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus has to endure this game? That it is so vulnerable to the scorn of the world?

Anywhere else in the world where commands are given, the situation is clear. A father says to his child: go to bed! The child knows exactly what to do.

But a child drilled in pseudotheology would have to argue thus:

Father says go to bed. He means you are tired; he does not want me to be tired. But I can also overcome my tiredness by going to play. So, although father says go to bed, what he really means is go play.

With this kind of argumentation, a child with its father or a citizen with the authorities would run into an unmistakable response, namely, punishment. The situation is supposed to be different only with respect to Jesus’ command. In that case simple obedience is supposed to be wrong, or even to constitute disobedience.

How is this possible?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), 78–80.

By Joshua Steele

Anglican Priest, Managing Editor of Anglican Compass, Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.