Obedience, a highly prized virtue in the biblical narratives, is rather despised today. Pause for a moment to remember being obedient as a child. Was it required of you? Did you resent it? Do your children resent being obedient to you? Every child resents having to obey parents and teachers, but we all know that a child’s safety and survival depend on obedience. Necessary as obedience is in our childhood, we hear almost nothing about this virtue as adults.
In western cultures, marriage vows no longer include the word “obey” for many reasons, mostly because women’s status has changed in the last few decades; the word “obey” was eliminated from vows and from the culture because of a new understanding of inequality and even injustice. This seems to be the crucial word: “injustice.” When a command is just, most people have no trouble obeying it. But when it is unjust, they have every right to reject it, for we know that unjust demands and commands caused untold harm through the ages.
Women and children were delegated to less than full humanity even as late as the 19th century. Women could not even vote and children had no rights. In order to survive, both women and children had to obey men. Is it any wonder then that the virtue of obedience came to be resented? The institution of slavery to which Jesus refers in this passage was accepted as a given in the world of the first century, and to our great shame it continued to be accepted as the natural order of things in the United States. In some parts of the world, this terrible situation continues. No, this kind of obedience is not attractive to us.
Then, why is it that so much emphasis is placed on obedience throughout the Bible?
From the very beginning we are told the value of obedience and the consequences of disobedience: Adam and Eve disobey and are ordered out of the garden. Abraham obeys and is promised great things for his descendants. Moses obeys and becomes a liberator.
We need to pause here and consider the meaning of the word “obedience” both in the Old Testament and the New. In both Hebrew and Greek the word is based on the verb “to hear.” In Hebrew, the same word means both “to hear” and “to obey.” In the Greek, the root word is “to hear” with the prefix hypo, which means “under” or “beneath.” So one who hears and obeys is one who is in a lower position than the one speaking. God speaks; human beings hear and obey. Whenever God speaks through the prophets, the word “hear” is repeated. Before the proclamations of the prophets, we read the words, “Hear, O Israel.” Jesus says to the crowds that follow him, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Hearing in the biblical context is much more than allowing sound to pass through the ears to be understood by the brain. It means hearing with the understanding that the word comes from God and must be obeyed. This kind of hearing implies also the conviction, the trust, that God is good and deserving of obedience. Jesus calls it faith.
In today’s rather strange New Testament passage, so difficult for us to understand because its context is different from ours, Jesus is asked by the disciples to increase their faith. With his usual figurative language, he gives examples that seem greatly exaggerated: faith as tiny as a mustard seed, a mulberry tree that is uprooted on its own and plants itself in the sea. This language shows us how ridiculously small our trust in God really is. Jesus, with his words and acts, has already shown the disciples that he has been able to perform healing miracles through his total obedience to his Father. This obedience to the Father is a recurring theme in Jesus’ ministry. Again and again he feels the need to withdraw, to hear the words of his Father, in order “to do the will of him who sent me,” as he repeatedly reminds his disciples.
Jesus obeyed God because he was convinced that God is good. The great prophets obeyed the Word of God because they were convinced that God is just and that God wants only what is good for God’s people.
Hearing the word of God while trusting that God is acting already for our good seems to be the essence of obedience. God expects obedience because God is good and acts on our behalf. This is what we learn from the prophets and this is what Jesus showed us in his life. In this manner, to hear and obey means to be changed. St. Paul was changed radically when, on his way to Damascus, he recognized the voice calling him as the voice of the one he was persecuting. From then on he lived a life of obedience that changed the world. His words to Timothy, in the epistle read today, reveal that Timothy also heard, obeyed, and lived a life of faith. This faith must be rekindled, Paul reminds him, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
We need obedience in God, in the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ, in order to live with courage and not cowardice – and how desperately we need courage in this confusing world of ours. Power and love and self-discipline do not come without hearing the Word and doing it.
This then is the meaning of obedience: to trust that God is good, to hear his Word knowing that it is already at work within us, and to know that through grace even faith as tiny as a mustard seed can perform the miracles of love.
Obedience to a good God is still a virtue to be prized. Let us recapture it. Who knows what surprising results we will see in our lives? It’s worth a try.