Bonhoeffer :: Purity

We are in chapter 10 of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Each week I have been presenting you with ideas drawn from Bonnhoeffer’s discussion of what exactly it means to be a disciple. The last few weeks Bonnhoeffer has been commenting on Matthew chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus and the disciples are on the side of a hill, the people have gathered around them, and Jesus is explaining the life of discipleship to his followers.

We have heard Jesus assert his primacy over the Old Law. He fulfills the contract; the Old Law no longer binds man. But Jesus goes on to raise the bar. He says our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes, those who were famous for keeping the Old Law. Jesus makes a series of statements that show his authority, as author, over the Law and calls us to a higher standard of behavior.

Matt 5:27-32 27"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 31 "Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

Jesus references the Old Law, the old standard of behavior. This was simple enough "You shall not commit adultery". Why the change? Has God changed his mind as to what is acceptable behavior? Yes and no. Wisdom literature in the Bible is full of references to avoid the temptation of looking and lusting because it leads to ruin and destruction (Proverbs 5 and 6, for instance). God’s intent was never for us to indulge our sin natures as far as possible without actually transgressing the law.

Jesus' command, however, is more radical than that. He tells us that whoever chooses to lust has already committed adultery. This is not a cautionary note, designed to keep us from the dangers of "the real thing". It is a call to a new rule in the life of the Disciple. Purity. In Soren Kierkegaard’s famous formula "Purity of Heart is to Will one thing." Bob, our resident therapist, might tell us that purity is eliminating cognitive dissonance. Different definitions, different terms, but they all mean essentially the same thing. Purity is to be singular, to be consistent. Jesus calls us here to purity: our hearts and minds, not just our actions, must all be aligned to God’s will for our lives. As we saw last week, not just the actions, but also the heart of the Christian must be free from violence towards his brother. Jesus tells us now that not only our conduct, but our hearts and minds, those places that only God can see, must also be free of sin.

Jesus speaks here only in the context of adultery. The application, however, is broader than that. Do you look with lust at things? Are you consumed by a desire for possessions? Is it respect or even power that you crave? Is a certain position at work or the admiration of your peers the most important thing in your life? This call to purity must pervade and color our attitude towards life. It is no longer enough to refrain from action that you know is wrong, Jesus calls you to bring even your heart and mind into submission to God when your natural desires want to break away from his will for your life.

And just how important is this purity? Jesus admonishes us of the consequences of nurturing our sin. Better, he says, that we cut off our hand or pluck out our eye than risk the whole body. I am confident that Jesus is speaking metaphorically: in the words of the TV show "please don’t try this at home!" But his point is made. We value our physical bodies so much that the idea of cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye makes us recoil instinctively. How much more than should we seek to protect our whole selves by bringing our whole self into submission to God’s will and desires for us. The life of a disciple is not the lesser obedience of following the law, it is the higher path of purity, of striving to bring our heart and mind into submission to God. May God enable each one of us as we strive to walk the path of discipleship through this week.