Single-Minded Obedience

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19:23-26, NRSV)

As we continue this journey through the meaning of discipleship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we move from considering the need to follow and the nature of following to considering the means necessary to follow, i.e., single-minded obedience.

For Bonhoeffer, to be successful in following requires a two-part method: (1) single-minded intellectual focus and (2) willful obedience to follow the one who leads. Single-minded obedience is necessary for discipleship, he surmises, because, otherwise, we will not have the focus required to persevere in our commitment when the inevitable challenges to our chosen calling arise.

Let me explain.

Without fail, obstacles will present themselves, endeavoring to distract us from our focus or derail us from our journey. And, like those obstacles experienced by the disciples and other characters in the gospel narrative, many of our obstacles are legitimate and reasonable. Recall Levi’s call to leave his work and family obligations or the disciples who left their nets and responsibilities or the three men who wanted to follow but could list several tasks that needed completing—holy and worthwhile tasks—before they would be able to follow. Each had something that could legitimately hold them back. Yet, some experienced a severing that liberated them while others found themselves moored and unable to move.

In each case, obstacles stood in their way. Yet in each case, the difference in response was not the degree of obligation that differentiated those who followed from those who did not. Rather, the difference was that those who followed were willing to risk the consequences for their decisions to follow while those who did not were petrified into remaining where they were. Those who did not leave did not have responsibilities that were greater but had imaginations that were governed by expectations associated with their old life rather than expectations emergent from a new one.

It turns out that discipleship is characterized by a new kind of rationality, a rationality that is not better than an old one but just different. This new rationality emerges from the image of a new kingdom while our present rationality emerges from a legitimate source, just a different source. The old source holds us to thinking and living as we were while the new one requires old practices and commitments to be jettisoned in favor of new ones. Yet, inevitably, Bonhoeffer warns, we will begin to intellectualize the call we have undertaken, trying to harmonize the old way with the new as we recognize the legitimacy and rationality of both ways of living. And by intellectualize, Bonhoeffer means that we will seek ways to rationalize what we have and do with what we need and must do, creating an image that is not wholly new but more a hybrid.

For instance, consider the case of the rich young ruler. We will assume—and assume correctly because it is reasonable enough—that someone may be both rich and a faithful disciple at the same time. And, that does seem to be the case. In both scripture and in our own experiences, we know faithful people who manage to balance wealth with holiness. Yet, having wealth is not at issue. What is at issue is the apparent reality that holding onto wealth is the thing the young man cannot release in order to follow. He cannot let go because he has already come to the same conclusion that you and I do without ever undertaking the journey of discipleship in the first place.

In other words, the rich young ruler wants to start at the end and not learn, grow, and be transformed by the process, a journey that would, ultimately, allow him to retain his wealth but hold it differently. The reason the process of letting go is necessary is because the actual practice of letting go produces a different kind of knowledge—a relational, practical knowledge—that is only found through doing rather than considering. However, the ability to achieve this different kind of holding of wealth—and, in this case, wealth is simply emblematic of a number of possessions and attitudes we might have that can prevent us from fully following—is not done so without considerable transformation, sacrifice, or change. The rich young ruler—and to be honest, we, too—wants to rationalize himself to the end of the journey, making faith solely an intellectual exercise rather than a new way of life with real and material ways of living and consequences and knowledge. This is the paradox of the gospel and the way of discipleship—the paradox being that it is not what is known that needs changing as much as the one doing the knowing that requires alteration. In other words, the life of faith is about wisdom gained from a life well and faithfully lived, not knowledge obtained through bruit accrual of facts.

This need to let go in order to hold differently is precisely why obedience is the necessary companion to our newly acquired single-minded focus and rationality. When the inevitable bifurcation of our thinking enters our imaginations, having a default commitment to following a person and a prescription will keep us from distraction, spiritualizing intellectualization, and, ultimately, inactivity or rehearsal or simply a re-presentation of our how we were. In the face of such temptation, obedience and commitment will allow for perseverance.

Bonhoeffer’s claim that a life of faith requires commitment and a retraining in how we hold and consider the things of the world is neither new nor innovative. Yet, what it is is a reminder that our lives of faith are not to be conditioned or continued on our own terms. Something, someone greater than ourselves must take hold; otherwise, we are just repeating the same with the same to achieve the same. And, a life of faith, if anything, is meant to be more than the same, doing other than the same, and achieving more than the same.

This reminder that we often wish to be at the end of our journey without doing the work required to get there is nothing new. Consider what was behind our recent economic crisis, a crisis precipitated by a desire to make money at a pace more rapid than a matured economy can achieve. We extended credit to allow people to afford ways of life well beyond their current ability to repay, living in the present as if they had achieved their end. Or, consider the willingness of athletes to cheat at sports, cheating prompted by a desire to shortcut the hard work necessary to reach the goal of victorious success. Or, consider the willingness of students to cheat on their assignments, bypassing study to reach the good end of a completed assignment. Or, consider politicians who wish to undermine their opponents rather than offer their own substantive proposals because such proposals are more difficult to manage than the alluring, distracting simplicity of a smear-campaign.

Like the rich young ruler who knows that he should be able to hold his wealth and his faith simultaneously, it is not that we do not already know all that is necessary to reach our ends. It is simply that we are not yet the people ready to reach them. We need to be changed first. And, such changing requires a letting go and a moving on.

The purpose of the gospel, in this case, is a gracious jarring awake from our delusional assumptions, unmooring us and preparing us to move on to a new life and new ways of living. So awakened, let the journey begin.

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make melody. Awake, my soul. (Psalm 108:1, NRSV)

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