Bonhoeffer’s Blessing: Reading the Beatitudes during Lent

photo credit: Stacy Franco,

“Blessed are…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that Jesus was referring to the Hebrew word eshrey (deeply happy/incomprehensibly happy) as he spoke in Matthew 5:1-12, rather that the word barukh (blessed, happy, fortuitous) and that this deep and incomprehensible happiness would be needed by the disciples as they followed him. As Bonhoeffer sets the scene for the Sermon on the Mount in his book The Cost of Discipleship, he established this diagram with his writing:

Bonhoeffer writes:

LET US PICTURE the scene: Jesus on the mountain, the multitudes, and the disciples. The people see Jesus with his disciples, who have gathered around him … The disciples see the people, from whose midst they themselves have come. These people are the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the elect people of God, the “national Church.” When the call of Jesus had selected them from among the people, the disciples had done what for the lost sheep of the house of Israel was the only natural and necessary thing to do—they had followed the voice of the Good Shepherd, because they knew his voice … Jesus sees his disciples. They have publicly left the crowd to join him. He has called them, every one, and they have renounced everything at his call. Now they are living in want and privation, the poorest of the poor, the sorest afflicted, and the hungriest of the hungry. They have only him, and with him they have nothing, literally nothing in the world, but everything with and through God. It but a little flock he has found, and it is a great flock he is seeking as he looks at the people.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship (p. 105). Bold type added for emphasis

Jesus has called a little flock of disciples out from among the multitude so that they can renounce everything and depend totally upon his authority and provision. This is where Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Beatitudes gets interesting! Bonhoeffer encourages us to read the Beatitudes as Christ’s encouragement to his ‘little flock’ to observe complete dependence upon him. When Christ says:

“Incomprehensibly happy are those who are poor in spirit…”

he is saying, come to me impoverished of spirit, so that your spiritual nourishment comes completely from me. When Christ says mourn, Bonhoeffer wants us to picture the coming crucifixion about which the little flock has no idea. When Christ says hunger and thirst for righteousness, Bonhoeffer wants us to envision a life lived so fully in Christ that we trust in him completely.

This is an entirely different way to read and consider the Beatitudes! I will be honest: I am thirty-three, Anglo, middle-class, educated, and have been given credentials and a pulpit. I was trained in a western seminary focused on the “what” as much as the “why” with emphasis on pedagogy. Teaching me how to teach people how. Growing up, I remember reading Matthew 5:1-12 and thinking that those who mourned and those who were poor in spirit were people I would see on a mission trip out of the state or the country. Then, traveling home on a plane or a church van I would think:

Thank God I’m coming home and not staying there.

How dangerously I came to being the person praying loudly on the street corner, “Thank you, God, that I am not like this tax collector!” I am self-aware enough to admit that I read the beatitudes and placed everyone I could think of within their context … except myself.

Therefore, as I seek to observe a holy Lent, and convicted by Bonhoeffer’s words and the words of Jesus, here is how I will approach the Beatitudes:

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Come to me poor in spirit, so that your complete dependence is upon me

Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

Mourn for me in my death, so that you may celebrate my resurrection

Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.

Bring no quarrel against your enemy, and submit completely to me

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.

Seek your righteousness through my strength and not yours, come to me empty enough to receive my righteousness and not your own

Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

Be merciful like me, and receive my mercy even as you give it out

Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.

I require your absolute purity, fixing your desires on nothing that does not include the love of God in it

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.

The peace I give you not as the world gives – rest in it, embrace it, and practice it

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Suffer with me because of your attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors, as I suffer

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Trusting and depending entirely on me, let go of the opinions of others

My Lenten spiritual disciplines have become more powerful and meaningful as I have taken Bonhoeffer’s advice and turned the Beatitudes on myself, exposing myself. To be a disciple is to be among the little flock, called out from the multitude, and relinquishing every right and comfort. That is a troubling, convicting, wonderful thought in 2020 in my corner of the world.

One comment

  1. Thank you for giving me new thoughts on “old” ideas. These teachings are never outdated but I often need updating. I appreciate the opportunity to look at myself and my walk in different ways.

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