36 "OBEDIENCE IN THE CHURCH"
CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #36
"OBEDIENCE IN THE CHURCH"
[This material should be studied in conjunction with the previous two Suggestion Sheets:
"Obedience" and "Obedience in the Bible"]
PUTTING DOWN SOME MARKERS
There is story from the Desert Fathers: "One of the monks complained to an elder that a brother had committed fornication. The elder said: ‘He who said do not fornicate, also said do not judge’". That is probably good advice when it comes to obedience. Who can say for sure whether this or that person is truly obedient? And we all have a genius for self-deception, so the most any of us could say of ourselves is that we have done our best to be obedient. None of us can say, with absolute confidence, that we have acted without any taint of selfish intent or pride, for example. We leave the rest in the hands of God.
Genuine Christian obedience – the ongoing, deliberate commitment to listening, hearing and heeding, through Him, with Him and in Him – will always lead us into truth and goodness, it will never lead us into the lie or evil. Such a claim cannot be made about mere conformity or simply doing as you are told. While Christian obedience and conformity may indeed overlap often enough, obedience is a much deeper human commitment than conformity. Christian obedience, in the end, is Other-centred and leads us along the path of self-transcendence. Christian obedience leads us ever deeper into the rhythm of dying and rising until our final passover into Life. Christian obedience is the servant of the paschal rhythm of the Christian life. Christian obedience is the enemy of the ego-centred life.
THE OBEDIENCE OF JESUS
The evidence of the Gospels suggests Jesus conformed, for the most part, to the normal customs and rituals of Jewish life in his time. Obedience demanded that he resist the religious authorities, however, when the Covenant was at stake. Thus he eats with tax collectors and sinners (eg Mark 2:15-17, Luke 5:29-30, 15:1-2 & 19:1-10 and Matthew 9:10), he touches people with skin diseases (eg Matthew 8:3), he forgives sins (eg Mark 2:1-12) and he violates the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5). He tells parables that back up this non-conforming behaviour. For example, the priest who, fearful of ritual contamination "walks by on the other side" and leaves the Samaritan – a man despised by the authorities – to show compassion to the one who fell among thieves (see Luke 10:29-37) and the foolish young son who breaks all the laws, is welcomed home and is portrayed in stark contrast to the "obedient" older son (see Luke 15:11-32). At times Jesus openly attacks the religious authorities (eg Luke 11:37-54) and warns the people against them (eg Mark 18:14-21, Luke 12:1 and Matthew 16:5-12).
Mere conformity to the demands of the religious authorities and their example and dictates would have led Jesus to disobedience. Reality begins and ends with God’s liberating love, not human rules and rituals. In Jesus’ view of the world, people and relationships are primary, rules and rituals secondary. We should never forget this when we are talking about obedience among the community of believers, those baptised into Christ, followers of the Way.
OBEDIENCE AND CONSCIENCE
There are some very good reasons for conformity. For example, I would like to think that the other drivers on the road will conform to the rules of the road when I am out there, that the people who run the banking system will conform to the regulations, that the people with whom I have associations of one kind or another will conform to the normal courtesies of daily living, that when I am part of the liturgical assembly, we all will conform to a certain level of respect and reverence for what we are engaged in. In other words, some level of conformity is not only acceptable but a necessity. However, there clearly are times when Christian obedience demands that we refuse to conform. For example, what if the banking regulations demand we acquiesce in something we believe is immoral or the leader of the liturgical assembly begins to behave in a way that is insulting and disrespectful or we believe the designated Church authority is misrepresent the Gospel in some significant way?
This necessarily takes us into the complex and difficult area of conscience. The Second Vatican Council reminds us: "For human beings have in their hearts a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of the human person; according to it we will be judged (cf. Rm 2:15-16). Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a human being. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths" (Gaudium et Spes, 16); "…. our human dignity demands that we act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure" (Gaudium et Spes, 17); "In all our activities we are bound to follow our consciences in order that we may come to God, the end and purpose of life" (Dignitatis Humanae, 3). Pope John Paul II is in accord with the best of the Church’s tradition when he says: "People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it." (Pope John Paul II, Message for World Peace Day, 1999.) The publication of Humanae Vitae (1968) gives us a practical example. The Australian Bishops wrote, in a special message to their priests in 1974, apropos Humanae Vitae:
"It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in this matter, and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with the papal teaching. Such a person could be without blame; he would certainly not have cut himself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his conscience he could be without subjective fault."
DISOBEDIENCE AND OUR RESPONSE
As was indicated above, we are all born with a genius for self-deception. None of us is exempt. We can easily rationalise our position, be driven by unacknowledged personal agendas, get caught up in peer group pressures, and so on. Selfishness, egotism and pride can diminish our willingness and cloud our ability to listen and hear and heed.
Christian obedience demands constant work, work that will never end. The desire to be obedient will be expressed in a persistent willingness to enter the paschal rhythm of daily living, to die to selfishness and pride. Christian obedience will be expressed in a commitment to prayerful listening to the Gospels, to celebration of the liturgy with the community, to study and reflection on the wisdom of the tradition, to meeting people in a spirit of compassion and forgiveness, to seeking honest self-awareness.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- What do you see to be the difference between "conformity" and "obedience"? Give an example.
- Reflect on why we should never judge others or ourselves. What do you think Jesus means.
- Have you encountered your genius for self-deception? Give an example.
- Reflect on the statement that genuine Christian obedience will always lead to the true and the good.
- Go to the Gospels and read one example of Jesus’ non-conformity. How does that affect you?
- Reflect on the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son as an example of obedience.
- Recall a time when conscience demanded you act in a way that was difficult. What happened?
- Under what circumstances are you most likely to be disobedient?
- What doe you find most helpful in fostering deep and effective listening in your life?
- What are your biggest helps/hindrances in fostering a prayerful lifestyle?