Today the idea of obedience as acknowledging our dependence on another creates a big problem in the mind of the contemporary man who is interested in freedom and dialogue.
Any directives which exact obedience, through requiring us to think, or to act in this or that way, or which obliges us to follow rules set up by somebody else become difficult in our post modern period. That is why law is becoming a very controversial topic everywhere.
Though some will not hear of the word ‘law’; it remains true that without the guidance of law any freedom or liberty becomes license.
It is interesting to note however that our Sunday liturgy informs us that the problem of law and obedience has been felt by all generations.
In the Acts of the Apostles Peter fearlessly defies the high priest, affirming that obedience to God comes before obedience to men. (Ac 5, 29) Faced with the Sanhedrin’s solemn prohibition to preach and God’s mission to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth, they were prepared to ignore the former and go with the orders of the latter. But they paid for it in terms of nights in prison!
The problem mentioned above is aggravated by the notion of law and obedience itself which has been defined differently in the course of human history.
According to St Thomas, law is an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by those who competently have care of the community. On the other hand, obedience may be taken as acknowledging our dependence on another.
Man relates to law as a rational being, conscious of the self as well as his surroundings. His rationality manifests itself differently according to the historical context.
That is why the rationality of the new generations towards law and obedience, may not fit into a certain philosophy and ethic of earlier times. In a day and age where we consider ourselves free from taboos; obedience too may look as a taboo.
But obedience is a reality and not a taboo! And when it comes to the law of nature, no one can walk away with impunity; babies learn this too early when they put a finger on fire.
And to a lesser extent, it is the same with all other laws. When it comes to obeying or disobeying any law, the apostles teach us a lesson; we have to choose carefully; there might be a price to pay.
In the above incidence, Peter and the other apostles did not have an issue with obeying. Since the high priest was putting his authority over God’s. He was ignoring his dependence on God. Hence his authority was neither authentic nor binding.
But the apostles did not make this a generalized stand against the Sanhedrin. When the attendants warned St Paul in one of his hearings, that he was insulting the high priest with his words, he answered: Brothers, I did not know it was the high priest: you must not curse a ruler of your people (Acts 23:5).
And in his letter to the Romans, St Paul tells us that just as disobedience is the gateway to sin in Adam, obedience in Christ is the gateway to redemption (Romans 5:19).
Obedience is not only positive but it is a fact of life as well. As citizens we must obey just laws. And this is not just a rational or juridical process; Blaise Pascal said that the heart has reasons that the mind does not reach.
Obedience can be taken as a fruit of love. If I love my country, I shall obey its laws and respect its constitution. Just as a child will obey the parents’ regulations out of the love that he or she has for them. In the same way a husband and wife will be at each other’s service because of the love they have for each other.
In all this, obedience remains free. By submitting ourselves to a legitimate authority, we sustain liberty by promoting the common good and we preserve social order.
If we find this kind of obedience difficult, it may help to remember that Jesus too did struggle with it. In Gethsemane, he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Not just once.
He makes the same request a few verses later: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” ( Matt. 26: 39 ) It’s comforting therefore to know that God understands how difficult obedience is for us.
But his was a hard obedience that required a terrible blow to his personality. With his help therefore we can fare better in obeying rules which make us good citizens.