The Color Purple

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Moderation. Balance. How do we live out these admonitions in a world that paints everything in stark extremes of black and white?

Jesus tells a story:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7 ESV)

This story is laconic. We are not told why the sheep became lost, only that it repented. From the context, we know that the sheep is loved enough to be pursued at great cost until it is found. This is probably the Bible’s most important lesson in dealing with sinners, even with the color purple. God really does love you, enough to send his only son to die for you.

But, what if the sheep in this story pretended to repent just long enough to be rescued? And when restored to the flock, this sheep danced around bragging about how special it was. Perhaps the sheep then started its own television show where the sheep commended its at-risk, lifestyle and suggested how viewers could join it in becoming special. In our black and white world, craziness like this happens but it is inconsistent with our laconic sheep story where repentance is assumed to be heart-felt and life changing.

The Good Shepherd Context

Luke’s story about the Good Shepherd focuses on God’s attitude about the lost, which we know because he immediately tells two other stories about something lost— a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a father who almost lost his son (Luke 15:13-32). But Luke wrote like a journalist interviewing eye witnesses to the Gospel stories; he was not himself an eye witness. For an eye-witness to the context of the Good Shepherd, we must turn to John’s Gospel.

Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John 10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.⁠1

So how do we recognize a bad shepherd? We read:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2)

In Jesus’ context, the bad shepherds in view were the Sadducees who controlled access to the temple and the sacrifices being offered, and the Pharisees who were jealous of Jesus. More generally, the bad shepherds are those “feeding themselves,” earning a paycheck while avoiding unpopular teaching.

The Testing of Abraham

A lot of ink has been spillt over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the destruction of the cities is not the focus of passage. The story begins with these words:

The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:17-18)

Without delving into details about the nature of sin and its appropriate punishment, God wants to know Abraham’s response to his disclosure—this is a test. To put this in a modern context, its like President Truman calling a good friend into his office and telling him that he has decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—what would you say? In Abraham’s case, he begins a lengthy negotiation (a prayer) over the lives of the people in the cities (Gen 18:23-32).

Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured the cities as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33).  If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those caught up in sexual sin.

The Ethical Problem

An ethical problem arises when two theological principles come into conflict. On the one hand, we are instructed “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet, we are also told:

not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)

Setting aside the finesse of who is and is not a disciple and when, these two admonitions are obviously in conflict.

In this context, the words of Jesus in John 8 seem most appropriate. In addressing the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says:

Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)

When the Bible teaches something that bothers us, our role as Christians is not to dismiss the biblical teaching, but rather to find creative ways to honor it and bring glory to God.

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1 The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; John 10:22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).

The Color Purple

Also See:

Value Of Life

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Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge: Following After Christ

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipDietrich Bonhoeffer. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937).  Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth.  New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Who do you follow after?

Belief follows obedience (57).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship was the first book of theology (other than the Bible) that I remember reading as a young person [2].  It was a tough read in eleventh grade, but I remember one thing:  grace is not cheap.

Introduction

Bonhoeffer wrote:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate (44-45).

The Apostle Paul put it this way:  we were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The title in German is Nachfolge which means follow after.  It is often translated simply as disciple.

Historical Context

Americans are mostly unaware that Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933 (Metaxas 2012, 138).  It was later that he seized the title of Führer, which means leader in German.  Bonhoeffer distinguished himself as an early opponent to National Socialism and spoke in a radio broadcast about the limits of leadership only two days after Hitler’s election.  Bonhoeffer said:  A good leader serves others and leads others to maturity (Metaxas 2012, 142).

Nachfolge was written in the years that followed (1933-1937) as a rebuttal to the false leadership embodied in the idea of führer.  The disciple stands under God’s authority which the Führer denies.  Still, Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church.  Nachfolge is quietly addressed to the Confessing Church (e.g. 53), which stood apart from Hitler’s Reichkirche (official German Church) [3], and is not addressed to society more generally.  In standing in opposition to the führer principle, Bonhoeffer needed to define Christian leadership.  He wrote:  Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer (91).  Bonhoeffer was very aware that Jesus also lived during trying times and was also persecuted by corrupt religious leaders.

Organization

Although Nachfolge is often interpreted through the lens of cheap grace and discipleship, these topics consume less than a third of the book (5 of 32 chapters).  Nachfolge reads like a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.  It divides into 4 parts:

  1. Grace and Discipleship;
  2. The Sermon on the Mount;
  3. The Messengers; and
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Life of Discipleship (9-10).

The Touchstone edition includes a forward by Bishop G.K.A. Bell who knew Bonhoeffer personally and worked with him (in England) to coordinate the opposition to Adolf Hitler during the Second World War.  It also includes a memoir by Gerhard Leibholz, a Jewish attorney who was also Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law.  Let me turn to summarize these 4 parts briefly.

Grace and Discipleship (35-101)

The problem posed by cheap grace arises because God offers grace to the sinner, not the sin.  Cheap grace whitewashes sin and insults God’s mercy.  Bonhoeffer wrote:  Costly grace was turned in cheap grace without discipleship (50).  This is to confess Christ as savior, but not as Lord.  Worse, it inoculates the aspiring Christian against true faith (54).  By contrast, the disciple is called by Christ (63) and adheres to Christ (59).

Bonhoeffer wrote that only those who obey can believe (70).  In other words, for Bonhoeffer there is no such thing as a seeker Christian—we are called or not—and suffering is the badge of a true disciple (91).  Suffering and rejection mark Christ as the true Messiah; the disciple shares in his master’s fate (87).  Bonhoeffer famously wrote:  When Christ calls a man, bids him come and die (89).  We gain our identity as individuals through Christ’s call (94).

The Sermon on the Mount (103-197) [4]

If Bonhoeffer had been an individual opposed to Adolf Hitler, then he could have ended his book with Part 1–Grace and Discipleship and escaped from Hitler’s Germany to spend the war working as a professor in the United States. In fact, in 1939 his escape was arranged for him in the United States where he spent 26 days mulling this alternative over.  But Bonhoeffer was not an individualist; he could not cut and run.  Instead, he returned to Germany to face his true calling (Metaxas 2012, 321-346).  The remainder of the Nachfolge addresses the role of the disciple at work and in the community [5].

Bonhoeffer begins his analysis of the Beatitudes by laying out the participants:  Jesus, the multitudes, and the disciples.  Bonhoeffer wrote:

Yet there will be enmity between them right to the bitter end.  All the wrath of God’s people against him [Jesus] and his Word will fall on his disciples; his rejection will be theirs (106).

Therefore, Jesus blesses his disciples (106) calling them salt and light.  The problem of the church, our church, is the failure to be salt and light (118).  The touchstone of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s words:  simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it (197).

The Messengers (199-221) [6]

Jesus’ disciples function as under-shepherds to Jesus, in part, because bad shepherds lord generally over the flock (202).  In Matthew 9:36, Jesus cites:

So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. (Ezekiel 34:5 ESV)

The remainder of this chapter in Ezekiel focuses on the attributes of bad shepherds.  In this context, the disciples function as evangelists who are charged to proclaim the kingdom of heaven and confirm their message by performing signs—miracles, exorcisms, and raising the dead (Matthew 10:7-8; 207).  They are to depend on hospitality being accredited as disciples by their poverty (209) and by their suffering (215).  As under-shepherds, they are also to expect opposition from the bad shepherds.

The Church of Jesus Christ and the Life of Discipleship (223-304).

As the called out ones of Christ (271), how do we understand our call?  Bonhoeffer writes:  There was no other way for them [the disciples] to know Christ, but by his plain word (226).  Consequently, Bonhoeffer sees child baptism as an abuse of the sacrament because baptism cannot be repeated and no faith is present (235).  More generally, the church becomes visible through the preaching of the Word, baptism, and communion (251).  Radical transformation of the church takes place as we all stand equally before the radical call of Christ (256-258).  Restoration of the divine image is impossible for us but becomes possible when God becomes like the image of man as He does in Jesus Christ (299).

Assessment

Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge poses a challenging question to the church.  How does the church be the church in the midst of obvious persecution?  Before the Gestapo began hauling dissenting pastors off to concentration camps and drafted others into the Machtwehr (army), the Nazi worked to co-opt the church into a vision of the church cast by Nazi dogma and political needs. The Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934 (Die Barmer Theologische Erklärung) helped articulate the framework of the Confessing Church and met the most egregious Nazi efforts in forming the Reichskirche, but more was needed.  In some sense, Nachfolge was Bonhoeffer’s efforts to explain to himself what God required of him.

Who do we follow after?  We are to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1; 304).

Footnotes

[1] http://imprints.simonandschuster.biz/touchstone.

[2] When I entered seminary, I read it again; now having graduated from seminary this is my third reading.  This is the only book, other than the Bible, that I have ever read three times.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_Reich_Church.

[4] The Sermon the Mount is found in both the Gospel of Luke (Luke 6:20-49) and the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5-7).

[5] The remainder of Nachfolge is in some sense the beginning of a journey on the road to another book, Life Together, which chronicles Bonhoeffer’s work with an underground seminary in Hitler’s Germany. Life Together was completed in Göttingen, Germany (a university town where I also studied) in 1938 (Metaxas 2012, 312).

[6] This chapter focuses on Matthew 9:35-10:42 (199).

References

Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge: Following After Christ

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Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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