Bonhoeffer on Poverty


Detrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Theologian, Author, Anti-Nazi Dissident, Martyr

The disciples are needy in every way. They are simply “poor” (Luke 6:20). They have no security, no property to call their own, no piece of earth they could call their home, no earthly community to which they might fully belong. But they also have neither spiritual power of their own, nor experience or knowledge they can refer to and which could comfort them. For his sake they have lost all that. When they followed him, they lost themselves and everything else which could have made them rich. Now they are so poor, so inexperienced, so foolish that they cannot hope for anything except him who called them.

As long as Jesus’ disciples depended upon him, they were anything but poor. Oh sure, they owned nothing but the clothes on their backs and the sandals on their feet, and to the casual observer they must have appeared as a small band of ne’er-do-wells. With that appearance, along with their Master’s proclivity for associating with “sinners,” polite society would never acknowledge them, let alone show them cordiality.

Most Americans can’t understand true poverty, with “po folks” depending on the national and state governments for their necessities. At one time, those with genuine need could count on churches or philanthropic wealthy people to help them. Now, the government punitively taxes the wealthy and middle-class to support welfare programs, and Christians have abdicated their charitable responsibilities to said government. The result is a new class of people who believe they are entitled to support, with few balancing responsibilities.

Bonhoeffer considered Jesus’ disciples’ abject poverty a good thing, as it made them completely dependent on their Master. I think he presented that idea as a desirable principle for today’s Christ-followers, not by literally descending into poverty, but by holding our property and possessions loosely, not as our own, but as a sort of trust fund upon which God may draw at will for his purposes.

Unrealistic? I think not. Most of us work to support our lifestyle, not God’s work. Many of us are slaves to our mortgages and credit cards, when a simpler lifestyle would eliminate all that debt. We wallow in materialism, which is antithetical to spirituality. How can we wonder why people don’t trust God’s church? It has become a byword, the butt of course jokes, because church-members ignore the most basic and essential principles of Christian living, with charity at the top of the list.

Unless we repent, we are in danger of finding ourselves among the “goats” at the Last Judgment. “Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity, I never knew you,” will not be music to our ears, as we listen to the pathetic, hopeless screams and wails, our own among them.

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