Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 3 & 5 Single Minded Obedience/Discipleship and the Individual
The gospels consistently present Jesus' interaction with others as a series of amazing demands. We sometimes skim over the unusual, even bizarre nature of Jesus call to the people he came into contact with, but it was there none the less. Levi was called to get up and walk away from his place of business collecting taxes, Peter walked away from his nets. When potential disciples offered themselves Jesus demanded that they walk away from a funeral, from their businesses, and from even a quick farewell to their relatives. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do, Jesus instructed him to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and come and follow.
In a way, there are a lot of good reasons not to be obedient to the call to follow sometimes. Each of these people we mentioned had excellent, logical, moral reasons not to follow Jesus: how irresponsible it would be to just leave your business without a word, how immoral it would be to walk away from your family, how unreasonable it would be to sell everything you have and make make no financial provision for yourself. All these reasons stood in the way of those Jesus called, and they stand in the way of us today.
Bonhoeffer talks at length in this section about rationalization: our ability to "explain" and sometimes "explain away" the commands of Jesus. If we experienced the call from Jesus as these men experienced it, what would our reaction be? Bonhoeffer expects that many christians would rationalize away the call with something like this: "It is true that Jesus has asked this particular thing of me, but I have to remember that he does not expect us to take his commands legalistically, but rather in faith. So what he must really mean is to examine my heart: do I place my riches or my business or my family at too high a level in my life? It is a good reminder, but my faith is not tied up in my riches or my business and so I clearly do not need to answer the call. He may have said "sell everything you have" but what he really meant is that I shouldn't think to highly of the things I have." So we excuse ourselves from a naïve obedience on the pretext of faith and so we may spiritualize Jesus commands.
The difference between ourselves and the rich young man is that he was not allowed to rationalize: a real, living and breathing Jesus stood in front of him and demanded obedience. But we are still confronted with a real living Jesus today, and he still calls us to follow. To how many of Jesus commands might we respond in this way? If he should say to us "leave your family", we understand that he means we must not value our family above Jesus. If he says "have no care for the morrow", we understand that of course we must be anxious and plan, he just doesn't mean for us to be so anxious that we lose our faith. If He says to us "Love your enemy" we know that he only means that we should not be too vengeful, but it is alright to root for our armies when they kill the enemy. Jesus says "if somebody hits you on one cheek, give him a shot at the other" but we understand that really Jesus is saying we should demonstrate love, and sometimes the best way to demonstrate love is hit back. Hard.
All this is of course absurd. If we do this in any other context (that speed limit sign must mean simply that I should drive no faster than I feel is safe, but I am a good driver so I will go 90) we may soon pay a price. Why do we feel free to spiritualize the call of Jesus, why do we sometimes feel as though the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to say to us? In part because there is a grain of truth in our rationalization. Jesus really does wish to get to our hearts and so his commands may be a means to an end, not the ends themselves. This realization, however, can only come after we have been obedient. Christ calls us to be obedient in faith, and when we have been obedient, then we may understand why he gave us the call he did.
Jesus didn't ever let any of those who he came into contact with "off the hook" so to speak. He always demanded that they make a choice for him even when there might be good reasons to do otherwise.
Luke 14:26"If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.
Bonhoeffer speaks of the necessity that we give up everything else in life to answer Jesus' call. Everything, everything, must be ceded to Him and to His control. Now our tendency is once again to protest: who can be against the family? Jesus cannot mean that I have to give it up.
Jesus demands that we approach everything through him and through him alone. We can desire nothing in life unless Jesus calls us to it and our desire to follow him must be so great that it transcends every natural desire. Jesus wants us to hate even our own life compared to the call to be his Disciple. I cannot help but think that the parable immediately before this is significant. Jesus told of a man giving a feast who invited all his friends. They all had reasons not to come, very good reasons. Into this context Jesus says, no reason, not even life itself, must keep you from placing me first in your life.
Let me close with some practical advice from all of this. I think we sometimes are not sure what to do with Jesus admonition to place him first. I think we have to look at our motivations and actions in two senses. Do we allow Jesus to compete with our other loves? Do you allow your love of your family to compete with your dedication to Christ. Are able to say that we love Jesus more than anything else and that following him is our most important priority. God tested Abraham's ability to say this to the point that he was asked to sacrafice his son! That would have a way of clarifying your priorities. Not only, however, do we have our own relationship with Christ to consider, we have others' relationships. Do you insist on being first in others lives? Parents, do you insist that obeying your dictates is more important for your children than obeying their Lord? Do you take seriously their desire to be submitted to him as they grow older? Or do you attempt to mediate between your Child and God insisting that obedience to God means obedience to the family? As your children grow into adulthood, their obedience must be to Jesus and to him alone. Or, to consider another relationship, do we set our spouses free in our marriages to love God, more than they love us? The Bible tells us that God is a jealous God, but sometimes we humans can be pretty jealous as well. In all of our relationships (the Church, our families, our businesses, and so on) Jesus calls us to set him first and allow others to do the same.