The title of this essay must seem curious to us, especially as Americans. If we were obedient to King George nearly 300 years ago, there would be no United States of America!
In my years as Pastor, both here at Immac and at the two other parishes where I served as Pastor, I have asked for obedience from the people very often; it is the nature of being a Pastor. You serve by exercising the authority, properly vested in me by a higher authority, the Bishop and God, to keep the peace and to advance the legitimate goals of the Church: the spread of the Gospel of Christ. This cannot happen without the willing and joyful obedience of priests and people to the will of God as communicated by the decisions made by the Pastor.
But there are varied ways that people react when asked for obedience. Because of the negative reputation that obedience has and the exalted position culturally that self-determination has, most people have a hard time responding with an obedience that is both heartfelt and free from latent anger. Many do obey, but often get back at authority (and myself as Pastor) in many passive-aggressive ways. It is not a joyful obedience. It is hard to find anyone today that does not reluctantly obey, especially when they disagree with what they are called upon to do.
There are, of course, instances of obedience that produced terrible things. After the Holocaust, with the many people that went along with the horrible orders of the Gestapo simply to ‘follow orders’, we should be careful that we do not do what is morally wrong simply because we are asked to do it under the guise of “obedience”. That is not what I am talking about when I extoll obedience. One cannot divorce one’s choices from the moral order. If it is wrong, it must not be done even if rightful authority orders you to do it.
Aside from this very important caveat, we do not hear enough praise about this virtue. The original sin of Adam and Eve was a sin of disobedience. Reforming our way of doing things by always following the will of God is the most important work of our lives. It is the task of obedience: obedience to the Word of God, to Church teaching, to the demands of my station in life, and to rightful authority.
This, we must admit, does not go down easy in anyone addicted to this self-centered culture where ‘my’ will becomes ‘God’s will’. This is the very opposite of obedience.
The etymology of the word ‘obedience’ evolved from the word in Latin “to listen”. To truly ‘listen’ and hear what God is saying through rightful authority, in an open and unbiased way and to do it with a joyful serene attitude (and not a passive -aggressive attitude of diffident compliance) is really the task of spiritual development and is important on every level of human interaction.
It is also essential in our relationship with God.
I have found that listening is not as easy to do as it seems. To truly listen to someone else, deeply, means giving them your full attention and not hearing just their words but assessing their appearance, reading their body language and listening ‘with the third ear’ that therapists speak about where someone communicates to you by what they don’t say or are reluctant to say. One must also listen for the emotions at play in their voice and in everything else. True listening requires actual and not virtual presence. People also give off auras that are totally lost in online communications.
In situations that obedience is called for, ideally it should be a mutual obedience (in this meaning of listening). Husbands and wives, for instance, should be mutually open and listening to the true good of the other. This is a form of obedience. Likewise, a priest must be obedient to his Bishop; but the Bishop must also be listening deeply to the needs and concerns of the priest in order to fulfill his calling to have authority over him.
This all must be done with true cheerfulness and the willingness to trust God in this matter though my wishes were not heeded. Too often after a decision is made the ones for whom the decision was intended are outwardly obedient to it but harbor such resentment that they behave in very passive aggressive ways (slamming doors, etc.)
Clearly, then, one can see both the importance of obedience and also the way our culture provides a disincentive to its appreciation. While true obedience may be rare, it still is a beautiful jewel given by God for our sanctification.
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” – Hebrews 5:7-10