Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Obedience - Can an Outdated Metaphor Still Hold Meaning?

The opportunity to preach at the Holy Eucharist at the Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine this past Tuesday gave me the chance to reflect on whether two difficult passages of Scripture that use slavery as a metaphor for obedience (Titus 2:1-14, Luke 17:7-10) can still hold meaning for us today. What follows is that reflection.

“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect.”
-Titus 2:9

“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
-Luke 17:10

It needs be said at the outset that both the passages from Titus and Luke offer words about slavery that rightly disturb our modern ears. In most cases, our lectionaries skillfully excise such passages that might tempt us to justify slavery on account of the biblical text. Yet, somehow today, a simple Tuesday in ordinary time, two of these passages creep in and beg our attention. Perhaps this is a good thing as it reminds us that there are difficult passages of Scripture with which we must wrestle, lest we fall into the error of holding to a “canon within a canon” of Scripture. Thus, we must ask ourselves what we might learn from such texts that grate against our notions of justice, equality and human rights.

It should thus be said that the use of the metaphor of slavery is, of course, time sensitive. The metaphor, as it was used in the days of Jesus and St. Paul, is not a metaphor that appeals to us any longer; yet, as with any metaphor it is not the sign, but the thing signified by the sign that is intended as the focus of our attention. The thing signified in this case, is the virtue of obedience. The use of the slave metaphor is only a tool, or a means, to set before us the matter of obedience. We might substitute the metaphor, or indeed, even rewrite the parable in Luke in terms of employee and employer, or soldier and officer, or perhaps even parent and child, or perhaps even members of religious orders and their superiors, or priests and their bishops, to understand the meaning of these texts in our contemporary context. Obedience remains very much an important aspect of our existence. We seem to live under the illusion today that in our egalitarian and democratic society we do not have legitimate hierarchies of obedience, but they abound, and can be found without too difficult a glance.

It seems to me, then, that the word being proclaimed to us today is that we should not necessarily eschew relations of obedience simply because they make our egalitarian sensibilities a bit queasy. Let us be aware that relationships of obedience often arise out of competencies. For example, I am perfectly willing to be obedient to the instruction of the gas man who fixed my gas leak last week as I have no competency in the area of gas fitting. I am willing to be obedient to the teacher who is helping me to hone my skills as a student because I know that she has expertise and skill that I do not have, and yet hope to learn. The manager who has the whole picture of a workplace in mind, and also holds the confidences of various delicate human resources problems, is to be followed even when some decisions seem to make no sense. Why? Because certain people, like managers, have the burden of responsibility of holding pieces of the picture in tandem that we are not privileged to know, or indeed, have no business knowing. I am also willing (mostly) to obey the laws of the road as I drive, for the safety of all who use the roads. And I am willing to obey the laws of the land in order that we might know civil order and just governance. In the body politic, obedience is in important part of social order. This is true in the world and it is true in the Church. It need not be a tyrannical sort of thing.

When I work with those preparing for baptism and we arrive at the vow “Do you promise to obey Jesus as Lord?” this word “obey” creates considerable difficulties. Will I love Jesus? Will I follow Jesus? Will I turn to Jesus? Yes to all of the above, but to obey? We did take that word out of the marriage liturgy after all, didn’t we? Obedience causes us problems. And yet, as illustrated there are cases where we obey those in authority and the rules of society without a second thought. Why do we balk at obedience to the one who created us and love us with more depth and passion than any human love can know? Why do we have a problem with obedience to the will of God? I wonder if it is because we still, somewhere in the depths of our being, harbor unhealthy images of an angry God – God the angry parent; or God the King who punishes the seditious rebel. But is this the God we proclaim? I do not believe it is the God whereof Luke speaks, the God who has compassion for the broken, the wounded and the sinner. Nor is it the God of whom St. Paul writes to Titus, who in Christ Jesus “appeared bringing salvation to all!” Yes, God is our Judge, but oh, he is a merciful judge who longs to draw even the most rebellious of his creatures into his loving embrace and reconciling arms which were outstretched on the cross for just such a purpose. Perhaps one of my favourite quotations from that most judicious of Anglican divines, Richard Hooker, will illustrate the point and bring it home, “Be of good comfort, we have to do with a merciful God, ready to make the best of that little which we hold well, and not with a captious sophister, which gathereth the worst out of everything in which we err… the bowels of the mercy of God are larger.” Who would not offer obedience to such a merciful and loving God?

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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