In Cost of Discipleship, while moving from his exposition of Matthew 5 to Matthew 6, Bonhoeffer raises an interesting paradox that our devotional or homiletical reading of Scripture in little chunks often overlooks. In chapter five, Jesus goes on and on about the visible nature of the Christian life:
- Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…(v.16)
- If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…(v.38)
- Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you…(v.42)
In chapter six, however, Jesus begins with what seems to be a great contradiction. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (v.1). Taken at face value, these teachings are seemingly irreconcilable, and yet they are spoken almost in the same breath, (which a continuous reading of the Sermon on the Mount readily shows). How can this be? What is Bonhoeffer’s answer to his question? In short, “We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness.” Surely this answer will take some flushing out…
To reword his answer, the Christian life and good works must necessarily be visible, but they must not be visible for the sake of their visibility. “There are of course proper grounds for insisting on the visible nature of Christian discipleship,” Bonhoeffer says, “but the visibility is never an end in itself; and if it becomes so we have lost sight of our primary aim, which is to follow Jesus.” More simply, if we do our good works childishly in order to win ‘gold stars’ or accolades in the eyes of others or ourselves, we have missed the point.
Bonhoeffer’s explanation of these chapters becomes even more clear (and more pointed) when he asks the question, “From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship?” He answers:
Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light. No. We are to hide it from ourselves. Our task is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or of what we are doing. We must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only in so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural. Thus we hide the visible from ourselves in obedience to the word of Jesus.
In giving this seemingly difficult teaching at the beginning of Matthew 6, the resolution of which Bonhoeffer shows is really quite simple, our Savior has again struck to the core of human sin and pride.
We are to hide our good works from our own selves, because failing to do so unfailingly generates pride and puffs us up. Jesus knows all too well that if we perform good works with conscious focus on the works themselves, our inclination…no, our inevitable desire…is to rest on the laurels of our accomplishments and turn our focus inward to self instead of keeping our gaze on Christ and the cross. Turning our focus towards ourselves is a tragic first step towards self-righteousness (at best) and an un-Christian theology of salvation by works (at worst). The solution, of course, is to keep our eyes on Christ. “Genuine love is always self-forgetful in the true sense of the word. But if we are to have it, our old man must die with all his virtues and qualities, and this can only be done where the disciple forgets self and clings solely to Christ…Love, in the sense of spontaneous, unreflective action, spells the death of the old man.”
Lord Jesus, grant us the grace and strength to keep our eyes firmly fixed on you, our Captain, and keep them from turning inward to ourselves. Amen.