“Who Is My Neighbor?” Asking the Right Questions

Bonhoeffer entitles the second chapter of The Cost of Discipleship, “The Call to Discipleship,” which he defines by looking at the disciples. As Bonhoeffer states, “The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith.” This doesn’t jive well with much of the standards of Bonhoeffer’s time (or ours for that matter), so people often try to separate out the events, saying that confession has to precede any form of obedience. Beyond that, any form of obedience is not true obedience.

However, it’s Bonhoeffer’s central point in this chapter that this is the problem. Too often, the church separates out belief in Christ and obedience to Christ when, in fact, they go hand in hand. Now, I elevated orthopraxy over orthodoxy in my last post, and I stand by that, but if we look at Bonhoeffer’s context, we see where he’s coming from. Bonhoeffer wasn’t speaking to anyone who hadn’t already made a confession of faith; he’s speaking with people who have spent their whole lives in church, soaked in cheap grace,  who you couldn’t tell were alive unless you took their pulse.  These people, far as he was concerned, didn’t understand the true call to discipleship, the call to follow Jesus.  There was plenty of doctrine and theology, but there was no action, no obedience.

Bonhoeffer sums it up in the following statement: “Only those who believe obey, and those who believe are obedient.” The two cannot be separated, nor are they mutually exclusive.  Let’s look at the disciple Peter for example: all Jesus had to do was say, “Follow me,” and Peter dropped his nets and went.  Now, we have an action here: Peter up and leaves simply at the call of Jesus.  No Roman Road.  No ABCs of Salvation.  No explanation whatsoever.  There’s some historical context behind the language of “follow me” pertaining to the Rabbinical tradition, but this is kind of out of place considering Jesus’ station in life as a carpenter. Not only is this a great act of obedience from someone whom we assume has not made the intellectual assent to affirming Jesus’ God-hood, it’s such a high level of commitment that I think we miss in the 21st century, something we reserve  (as we have for millenia) for monks and nuns. Peter is leaving EVERYTHING to follow some guy who he may or may not have heard rumors about.

Who does that?

If I were to summarize Bonhoeffer’s drive with this whole book (as I seem to keep doing), I would do it as such: the level of discipleship and commitment to faith in and obedience to Jesus of Nazareth that we’ve considered reserved for the highest members of the church (pastors, reverends, priests, monks, etc.) is for everyone and required of everyone.  This is the costly grace we’re fighting for from chapter one: utter and complete dedication to following Jesus. What we’ve received thus far is cheap grace, which adds up to feeling nice and comfortable on Sunday morning with maybe one or two religious experiences. Bonhoeffer aims to yank us out of this into the call from Christ to follow. He’s not claiming that we are responsible for our own conversion (he leans heavily on predestination at some points), but puts it as such: “Peter cannot make his own conversion, but he can drop his nets and follow.”

To me, this begs the question: well, what have we done wrong? Why don’t we have this costly grace?  Bonhoeffer attributes our cheap grace primarily to doubt. Now, Bonhoeffer does not mean doubt in the sense of the great angst and uncertainty one encounters as a human being when following Christ (far as I can tell), but points to examples where people questioned Jesus with remarks meant to trap him, such as “Who is my neighbor?” or “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The individuals asking these questions may have done so in earnest, but Jesus, the perceptive teacher that he was, saw their intentions behind them.  The men posing these questions did so with their own agenda, to effectively pose problems that didn’t exist.  Is the scribe asking Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” truly so ignorant as to ask whom he should love and not love? Perhaps, but Jesus is not about to let him off the hook by engaging in a debate of morals. Instead, he calls him out with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and says, “Look, even the people you hate are better at being compassionate than you. Go be like them.”

Some might interpret Bonhoeffer’s tone here as anti-theology by demonstrating that all theology does is create problems that don’t exist.  I heartily disagree, and I believe Bonhoeffer would as well (this guy had a doctorate in theology by age 19).  It is true, however, that theology can lead us to ask the wrong questions. “Who is my neighbor?” and “Which commands must I follow to inherit eternal life?” are the wrong questions.  Bonhoeffer’s point is that Jesus laid everything out for us, and we must answer his beckoning to obey and believe. Posing moral pseudo-problems prevents our true belief and obedience.

So what is the right question?  In following Christ, questions will arise, as will doubts, dark nights of the soul, clouds of unknowing, and general conundrums, but the right question is this: Where is Christ, and where does He lead me? If we ask with the heart of true disciples, who have already left our nets, we will find ourselves obeying and believing in areas where others might scoff, or even be hostile to, but we have found Christ in those places, and we answered his call.


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