Bonhoeffer on…

I was a freshman in college when I became acquainted with the work of the late German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read and liked his well-known book The Cost of Discipleship, but what really intrigued me about him were the biographical details of his story—his nonviolent opposition to the Nazi regime, his role in founding the Confessing Church and running an underground seminary, and his later role in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate the infamous Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp, two weeks before it was liberated by U.S. troops. He was 39.

The more I read about Bonhoeffer and by Bonhoeffer, the more I admire him—from his thoughts on faith and community, to his willingness to wrestle with suffering, to his hope in the emergence of a “religionless Christianity.” (The fertile combination of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought together inspired an acclaimed documentary released in U.S. theaters in 2003. It aired on PBS in 2006.)

I only recently came across, and was pleasantly surprised by, a meditation of his called “Good News” from the book Reflections on the Bible. It caught my attention because, in expounding on Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the Gospel of Luke, it addresses a topic I raised in a recent post on—namely, the connection between the “gospel” and what I call “the story of need.”

Below are a few excerpts and quotes from “Good News.” In the first, Bonhoeffer voices and then dismantles what he saw as a common German cultural objection to Jesus’ message of good news to the poor:

“Why should we be concerned with a gospel that is for the weak, the low-class, the poor and sick? We are healthy and strong, real men and women who can cope with life. We disdain the mass of Lazaruses. We disdain this ‘good news to the poor.’ It puts a damper on our pride, our race, our strength. We are rich, and proud of it.’ This is…said far too easily and at the same time is so full of illusions. It is in fact so easy to disdain the mass of Lazaruses. But when you actually encounter a single such person, the jobless Lazarus, the casualty Lazarus, the Lazarus for whose ruin you are guilty, your own begging child as Lazarus, the helpless and despairing mother, the Lazarus who has become a criminal, the godless Lazarus, can you step up to one of these individuals and say, ‘I despise you, Lazarus. The gospel that brings you joy is a joke to me’?…

Or is it not perhaps already a mockery to confront those who live here in poverty and misery by promising them a better future in another world? Does it not almost seem that we are only trying to distract these unfortunates from rebelling against their fate in this world?…Is it not simply cynical to speak of heavenly comfort because one is unwilling to give earthly comfort?”

For Bonhoeffer, Jesus’ acts of healing stem at least in part from a concern for the sick and needy:

“So seriously does [Jesus] take suffering that he must do something about it in the present…Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh, blessed are you who hunger, for you will be filled. No cynical putting off with false hopes, but the one grand hope: the new world, the good news, the merciful God, Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, the poor and outcast at home with God—this may indeed sound terribly naive, plain and simple. But what if it might be true?”

Tombstone at Old Bewick Church in Northumberland, UK. (Marrton Dormish)

What the rich man most needs to realize about Lazarus, according to Bonhoeffer, is that “in death and the judgment that follows, they are brothers.” Not incidentally, this realization should also inform how the (relatively) rich hearers of the parable relate to their (relatively) poor neighbors on this side of the grave.

Bonhoeffer closes his “Good News” meditation this way:

“Who is Lazarus? Always the Other, the one who meets you in a thousand despised figures is the crucified Christ himself…And here at the very end we must…consider the final possibility, at the edge of all human and divine possibilities: before God, we are all Lazaruses.”

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