2017 – Cycle A
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9
Kneeling before a bishop with your hands folded in his hands, the bishop asks those to be ordained: “Do you promise obedience to me and my successors?”
It is a promise made not only for the foreseeable present but into an unknown future…“obedience to me and my successors”. Who will your successor be? The freely given promise of obedience is required of those ordained to the diaconate and priesthood and in the vows to their superiors by women and men monastics and religious.
Could you make such a promise of obedience?
In our autonomous and individualistic culture where no person can tell anyone else what to do these days, such a promise seems abhorrent. Against freedom, democracy and independence.
What does it mean to be obedient? Is obedience more than blind adherence to bishops and abbesses, parents, military superiors? What of the dark underside to obedience. It can sustain a person in immaturity. If a sergeant, a parent, a bishop has done all the thinking, reflecting and decision making then I don’t have to think or reflect. I can’t be held responsible for what happens or the consequences because I did not make the decision.
Consider the examples we Christians are given of obedience.
“God said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your family and relatives to a land that I will show you.” [Genesis 12:1-2] Leave everything and everyone that is familiar to you and that offers you security and identity. Would you move to an unidentified destination if it were asked of you? The response is direct and immediate. “Abram went as God directed him.” What do you make of Abram? Is he a fool? What did Sarai have to say about this sudden change in plans?
We encounter God and Abraham again. “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test and said to him: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” [Genesis 22:1-2] Can you imagine any parent obeying this command?
Abraham acts without seemingly any questions. “Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac…and set out for the place of which God had told him. [Genesis 22:3] This command seems particularly cruel. Sarah and Abraham have waited years for this child. When born they named him Isaac, which means “laughter”. Now God wants Abraham to kill “laughter”.
In an ironic twist, God sacrifices his Only-Begotten Son, except that, unlike Abraham no angel stops the horrific tragedy. Ultimately we are told, “Jesus humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2:8]
In all of these examples God commands without much explanation. None of these examples make much sense. There is only a command; no promises, no benefits, no rewards are offered. If Abraham obeys the command of God it will be for the sake of obedience only. Being obedient requires discipline and humility; the humility to listen to the deepest stirrings of our hearts believing that God moves within us. The humility that we do not know everything. Listening is key to obeying. It is believing that God wishes to communicate with us and desires a response. In our Christian understanding of the spiritual life, this listening is not done in isolation but rather with others. Thus I am convinced the long desert nights were filled with animated and forceful conversations between Abram and Sarai as they discerned God’s will in his contradictory commands.
We may not be asked to pick up and move to another country but are we too secure in the land of our own self-righteousness or the house of our own making in which we think we have nothing more to spiritually learn or areas in which to mature? Is God commanding us to move from what is familiar and secure in how we pray, worship and serve?
We may not be tested by God asking us to kill a son or daughter but are we being commanded to kill something within us that though very good is loved by us more than God; as dear to us as a daughter or son? Are we willing to journey to another unidentified place?
We will not be executed by our government but are we not y commanded to die to our own will?
The bishop asks, “Do you promise obedience to me and my successors?”
“Do you promise obedience to an unknown future with me?” asks God.
[Ideas and phrases were taken from Soul Provider by Edward L. Beck; Image Books, 2007]