Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who helped lead what was called the “Confessing Church” during World War II. He refused to go along with the Nazi government, so he formed an alternative to the state-run seminaries and raised up new men for the ministry in order to help keep the Church faithful to her confession of faith during the terrible era of the Nazis. He was eventually arrested and executed at the very end of the war.
Bonhoeffer wrote a number of books. Interestingly, one of his first was on the Psalms, which was a direct attack on Nazi propaganda, since it was an Old Testament book and Bonhoeffer’s point with his book was that the psalms are the prayers of Christ and of his people for him.
He also wrote another book called “Ethics.” Normally, when we think of the topic of ethics, we think of what’s right and what’s wrong, and it’s considered a good thing to be ethical.
Well, Bonhoeffer’s book is interesting, because at the very beginning of the book he tears down the whole idea of “Ethics.” He points out that our ability to judge what is right and wrong is a symptom of our fall into sin. Adam and Eve, before the Fall, knew no evil and there was therefore no need for “ethics.” They were with God and knew only good things; there was no need for them to judge between good and bad.
But, they fell away from God through their sin. And, in the shadow of their rebellion we also have fallen away from God and therefore can know evil. If we were in perfect communion with God and each other, as we will be when Christ returns, then we would have no need for “ethics” or trying to judge what is right and wrong, because there will be no “wrong,” no evil.
However, in this present sinful world we do have to make judgement calls. And often, our only choices are between two evils, not between two goods.
Bonhoeffer talks in his book about those people who decide to try to keep themselves absolutely pure by, for instance, making oaths to never lie. They place their own self-holiness or self-righteousness above all things.
Then, he poses a parable asking about what would happen if an assassin came to the door of a man who had sworn to always be truthful. And the assassin demands to know where someone was hiding in the man’s house so that he could kill him. This may sound like a silly story to us, but in Nazi Germany these things really did occur.
So, Bonhoeffer says that the always-truthful man could tell the would-be murderer that the person he’s looking for is hiding in the attic. That would be truthful and keep the man’s purity, but it would lead to the death of the person hiding. For the sake of his own sense of purity, the always-truthful man would cause the death of another person. It would be like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time who wouldn’t lift a finger to help someone else if it violated their own sense of purity and self-righteousness.
Or, the always-truthful man could lie and tell the world-be murderer that he doesn’t know where the person is that he’s looking for. This would be a lie and a sin, but it would lead to a greater good, the saving of a life. The point is that the man would take the sin of lying upon himself for the benefit of another person. It would be like Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, in violation of the laws of the Pharisees.
This is the concept of “taking sin upon yourself” for the benefit of someone else in order to “love your neighbor as yourself.” After all, we would heal or help ourselves, so we ought to do the same for others.
There are many smaller instances of this type of thing which go on all the time. I’ve known people who, after they had made a commitment to do something, would never change that commitment. Sounds good, right? Well, oftentimes something else more important or urgent would come along, and that person would not do it, because he had already committed himself to the first thing. His inability to take sin upon himself for a greater good handicapped him from doing the greater good.
Or, on the other hand, think about St. Paul when he went to the Gentiles. He wasn’t afraid of being perceived by his Jewish friends as unclean or unholy when he ate and drank with the Gentiles. He went to the Gentiles on terms they could understand in order to convert them to the Gospel.
The idea of “taking sin upon yourself” for the sake of another is not a license to sin. Instead, it is a recognition that in this present fallen, sinful world the whole idea of Ethics is often the choice between two bad choices; we live in a world of grays and not black and white.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time treated the world as if everything was black and white. And so they would not violate their laws in order to help someone. Jesus would, though. He would break the Sabbath in order to heal.
Jesus heals the sick, even on the Sabbath, because it is, in fact, in Jesus’ nature to take sin and dirt upon himself for the benefit of others.
That’s the whole point of why he came. Jesus takes our sin upon himself in order to save us. He is the perfect, sinless man, the perfect holy Lord God. He is the only one who is pure. He could have chosen to remain up in heaven, away from us dirty sinners, in the presence of the holy angels who continually sing his praises (cf. Isaiah 6), and yet he came down to us to save us. He took our sins upon himself on the cross, suffered for them there, and died for our sins. He sacrificed himself for our benefit.
We can never hear this enough or be told this enough, because we constantly need to be reminded of the greatness of his act for us, since it goes against everything we would do by nature. It goes against every man-made religion in this world.
We tend to want to lift ourselves up and elevate ourselves and make ourselves pure and self-righteous. We tend to want to be repaid for our generosity and good deeds. We want to be clean.
But, our Holy Lord God didn’t act like this, because he came in the flesh to take our sin upon himself. Christ wasn’t afraid to get dirty and to mix with sinners in order to save us. He came to the sick and the sinful with healing and forgiveness.
And he still comes to us who are sinful and sick, because he took all our sin upon himself on his cross, and when he returns he will heal us completely as we celebrate at his great wedding feast as we, the bride of the Church, and the groom of Christ are united in eternity.
(Image of Bonhoeffer by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5483382