29 January 2018
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today our first reading and Gospel focus on the virtue of obedience. That word is probably a difficult word for some, if not all, of us. We are Americans! We are independent! We do what we want! The very word obedience may swell within us the very desire to say the word “no!”
But Moses reminds the Israelites, who are near the Promised Land, that God will raise up a prophet like Moses from among them, and they need to listen to that prophet. “Whoever will not listen to my words,” says the Lord, “which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.” This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus, from the family of Israel, a prophet like Moses (Matthew makes this very clear in explaining Jesus as giving a new law, the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount). At first they think John the Baptist might be that prophet (the priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask him, ‘Are you the Prophet?’). But then they think that Jesus is the Prophet. In John 6 they say, “‘This is truly the Prophet…’” But the people struggle with the obedience part. Not long after they acknowledge Jesus as this Prophet that Moses prophesied, Jesus tells them that they have to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have life within them, and most of them walk away. They do exactly the opposite of what Psalm 95 said today: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
Ironically, though, as our Gospel demonstrates, the demons are obedient to Jesus. As soon as he comes by, without addressing the demon at all, the man with the demon cries out at Jesus. Jesus then rebukes him, and commands him to come out of the man, and the demon leaves the man. There was no arguing, no delaying, just simple obedience. The creature, in the presence of its Creator, recognizes what it has to do and obeys.
Here’s the scary thought: the demons obey God better than we do, at times at least. Those whose entire purpose in their existence is to work against God, can often times be more obedient to God than those whose entire purpose in their existence is to be with God. St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, begins his rule for monks with obedience. He writes, “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart…that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.” Even that first word, “Listen,” is connected to obedience, as the word obedience comes from the Latin ob and audire which means to listen to someone. We obey when we listen to someone else and make their will our own.
Again, as Americans we pride ourselves on not listening to others, not obeying, but being independent. And independence is sometimes a good thing (like the Declaration of Independence). But when we decide not to listen to God, when we decide not to obey at all, independence becomes nothing more than the rule of my will over everyone else’s, and leads to anarchy, chaos, and violence.
Recently the term Cafeteria Catholics has been coined for those who only obey when it suits them (which means it’s never true obedience). Cafeteria Catholics pick and choose which teachings of the Church they want to follow. These Catholics stopped listening, and therefore stopped obeying. They argue, “But the Church is just made up of old men!” But they forget the words of Jesus to the Apostles in the Scriptures, “‘Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me.’” and “‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” Certainly we can wrestle with Church teachings, trying to understand, trying to listen for the voice of Jesus in them. And some things (like celibacy and fasting rules) are Church disciplines which can change over time. But other teachings (too many to mention here, and more than simply what is contained in the Nicene Creed) are given to us by Jesus through His Church, which we are bound by justice to obey since we are the creature and they come from our Creator. If we truly believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to protect the Church from teaching anything contrary to what He wants (even though those who lead the Church are still sinful men), then we need not fear to listen to Jesus and conform our wills to His. That is one of the great gifts of a Catholic education: we can teach children expressly how to listen to the voice of Jesus, and how to obey that voice when we hear it. But, even if we ourselves generally agree with Church teachings and obey them to the best of our ability, everyone, because we are fallen and live in a fallen world, struggles to listen to God and obey God in the daily moments of our lives.
So today let us recommit ourselves to obedience to God in all things, not saying “no” like a toddler to his or her parents, but saying with the Blessed Virgin Mary, “‘May it be done to me according to your word.’”