37 "OBEDIENCE IN THE MESS"
CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #37
"OBEDIENCE IN THE MESS"
[This material should be studied in conjunction with the previous four Suggestion Sheets:
"Systems", "Obedience", "Obedience in the Bible" and "Obedience in the Church".]
THE OBEDIENCE OF JESUS
Matthew’s Gospel has a telling description of what Jesus expects of his disciples:
"One of the scribes then came up to him and said to him, ‘Master, I will follow you wherever you go’. Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another man, one of his disciples, said to him, ‘Sir, let me go and bury my father first’. But Jesus replied, ‘Follow me and leave the dead to bury their dead’". (See also Luke 9:57-60.)
Matthew’s text needs to be read with other similar texts. For example, texts like:
|"‘Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth etc’" (see Matthew 10:34-36; also Luke 12:51-53).|
|"‘Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me etc’" (see Matthew 10:37-39);|
|"‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me etc’" (see Matthew 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 9:23-27).|
|"‘The Son of Man is master of the Sabbath etc’" (see Matthew 12:1-8; also Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5).|
|"‘Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother etc’" (see Matthew 12:46-50; also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21).|
In the light of such texts, it ought not come as a surprise when we read in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus’ relatives tried to take him into custody because they thought he was mad (see Mark 3:20-21). The record of the person and teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels strongly suggests that obedience will inevitably bring us into conflict, sooner or later, with the accepted norms of the surrounding society and its institutions. This ought not be read as an encouragement to seek out conflict as if there was something good about conflict. The Gospels do not canonise dysfunctional behaviour. They do however emphasise, explicitly and implicitly, that being obedient to the will of God will take you beyond mere conformity. God is not bound by human structures or strictures. If we seek to listen to God’s presence in our midst and hear and submit to God’s ways, we will find ourselves, from time to time, out of step with those around us. When a crowd moves in a particular direction, experience tells us that most will merely move with the crowd in the prevailing direction. Those who are alert to a deeper truth may find themselves moving in another direction. This may look like madness or betrayal to the crowd.
THE EVIDENCE OF HISTORY
Sometimes it is said: "The Church is like a club. If you don’t like the rules, get out!" The assumption seems to be that fidelity demands conformity. The very opposite may at times be the truth. There have been occasions, for example, when the Church has taught one thing in one era and the opposite in another era. We could note some recent examples, like the changing attitude of the Catholic Church towards Protestants or the change from believing that eating meet on Friday is (potentially) a sin unto eternal damnation to believing now it is not a matter of any concern. But there are other more significant cases. Consider, for example, the Church’s teaching on usury – ie looking for profit on a loan. Usury was consistently condemned by the Fathers of the Church and during the four centuries from the middle of the 12th century to the middle of the 16th century, three ecumenical councils condemned it as did numerous bishops and the greater majority of theologians. Usury was regarded as a mortal sin. Today, no bishop or theologian would hold to such a teaching. There are other examples. Pope Gregory XIII ruled in 1585 that, in the cases of slaves separated from their African spouses and transported to South America, if they accepted baptism they were free to re-marry. And, notwithstanding Pope Gregory XVI’s condemnation of the slave trade in 1839, as late as 1866 the Holy Office ruled that the buying and selling of slaves was permissible – something Leo XIII regarded as a moral outrage in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. For many centuries it was standard practice – upheld by St Thomas Aquinas – for those regarded as heretics to be handed over to the secular authorities for punishment and even execution – something Vatican II condemned in its Declaration on Religion Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). No bishops or theologians today would agree with Pope Pius IX’s teaching, expressed in his encyclical of 1854, Quanta Cura, that states must recognise the Catholic Church as supreme and submit to its influence and that freedom of conscience and freedom of worship are "madness". As late as 1952, Cardinal Ottaviani, Head of the Holy Office, gave a ruling which referred to freedom of conscience as an illusion. Vatican II, in a number of places (eg Gaudium et Spes #16 & #17 and Dignitatis Humanae #3), upholds the teaching of freedom of conscience, as has Pope John Paul II on a number of occasions (eg Veritatis Splendor #3 & #31-2 etc).
It is a matter of no little sadness, and a good deal of embarrassment, that the Catholic Church has not been more forthright down the ages in defending the rights and freedoms of individuals and communities. Thus, instead of being at the forefront of the great social movements of the 19th century – for example, the struggle for democracy, for the abolition of slavery and for the rights of workers – the Catholic Church was too often on the side of those who resisted such movements. Would that the Catholic Church had had more men and women of obedience and fewer conformists.
OBEDIENCE LEADS TO THE HEART OF THE GOSPEL
Obedience is active listening for the movement of the Spirit in every moment, everywhere; obedience hears, sees, feels and becomes imbued with Being beyond mere seeming; obedience yearns to submit to the ways of the Community of Love we call God. Obedience is a lifetime commitment, as the Benedictine nun, Maria Boulding, notes: "Like Jesus, you have to listen and listen. It will take you all your life to hear the Father's word of love for you; indeed it will take you all your eternity". Obedience leads us into the human community full of freedom and possibility, it enables us to be in any human society or system without becoming its prisoner. Obedience inevitably leads us into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. St Paul knew it better than most: "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:22). And this obedience is lived out in the broken, terribly messy reality of human society, civil and ecclesial. Obedience enables us to thrive in those human systems and become active contributors to them, by grounding us beyond them and situating the very systems themselves within the embrace of God’s mercy.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Take time to meditate on the Gospel passages mentioned in paragraph one above. Reflect.
- What do you see as the main theme coming through those Gospel passages?
- Can you recall any other passage from the Gospels that has a similar theme? Reflect.
- What is the difference between being obedient and being merely confrontationist?
- How do you deal with the inadequacy and inconsistencies of Catholic Church government?
- How might obedience lead Catholics to be more proactive and effective in social movements?
- How might lack of obedience manifest itself in your life today?
- Reflect on the implications of obedience outlined in the last paragraph.
- In what way might obedience be helpful in dealing with your frustration and anger?
- How might obedience enable you to thrive within a terribly messy and inadequate system?