Bonhoeffer: The Command ‘Follow Me’ Is Not Complicated

I was thumbing through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship again a couple of weeks ago. In Chapter 2: The Call of Discipleship, I came across an enlightening few paragraphs on the call of Levi the tax collector:

“And as he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the place of toll, and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him” (Mark 2:14).

The author’s analysis of this short text is abrasive–particularly because it tears down our commonly held assumptions about the story. Moreover, if we allow ourselves a fresh reading of this story, it becomes blatantly obvious that Bonhoeffer is one hundred percent correct. He writes:

The call [to Levi] goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events. By hook or by crook a bridge must be found between them. Something must have happened in between, some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the stupid question: Surely the publican must have known Jesus before, and that previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call.

How can it be that Levi would just get up and immediately follow Jesus? Surely he knew Jesus’s reputation, right? Maybe he had heard Jesus’s preaching before or was a secret admirer of Christ–sitting on the bench just hoping to be picked for his team. Maybe after the initial call Levi took some time to study up on Jesus. Having come to the conclusion that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah, then he decided to join Jesus sometime later on.

The one thing we cannot allow is that the story actually happened as plainly and succinctly as Mark narrates it. Certainly Mark intends for us to read between his lines. It is this very assertion that Bonhoeffer wishes to destroy:

Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent on this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of the call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call.

Mark intends for us to be struck by the utterly foolishness of Levi. The call and response are tightly linked in sequence: “He saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.” But who follows a man he’s just met? And what kind of man is able to summon a stranger to abandon his life and follow him with a mere command? “Exactly,” says Bonhoeffer:

Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to all men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road–only obedience to the call of Jesus.

According to this passage, the doorway to discipleship is obedience. A disciple’s journey does not begin until he responds to the call: “Follow me.” It is a call of utter submission. The point of Mark 2:14 is not to provide a study on the inner psychology of a disciple. It is a statement of the absolute authority of the Son of God who is able to summon forth faith that leads to immediate obedience with the simple words “Follow me”:

And what does the text inform us about the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me! That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. It is not a cause which human calculation might deem worthy of our devotion, even the devotion of ourselves. What happens? At the call, Levi leaves all that he has–but not because he thinks that he might be doing something worth while, but simple for the sake of the call.

The words, “Follow me,” are completely devoid of content. They do not indicate what sort of life Levi will live, what sort of teachings he will receive, what sort of ministry he will enter. “Follow me” is the stripping away of any persuasion or reasonability. “Follow me” is the command of pure authority. What sort of man is this, who commands men to follow, and–with no indication of where he is going or what he is doing–they follow?

Mark has already told us in the first sentence of his Gospel: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

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