by Sister Gretchen Johnston
Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-6, 12-13, 17
I did not want to talk about obedience today. I wanted to find some other connection between the readings for tomorrow. But the idea to talk about obedience never left my head, and that idea begat more ideas, until finally I gave in. The readings tomorrow are all about obedience, after all. Was I obedient to obedience? But, I protested, what could I say to you who have lived the Benedictine promise of obedience so much longer than I? But then came the thought: Our feet all stand on the same ground. Here are some of my thoughts on what obedience is or is not.
When I was a child, I used to wonder why the Bible had stories about animals doing improbable things, such as talking. There’s the serpent in tomorrow’s first reading, the donkey in the Balaam story, and other examples. I wondered why Bible times were so different from ours, because animals do not speak with words in our time. Why did God see fit to make those long-ago times special, and what on earth were we to learn from stories of talking animals? Why isn’t eating apples bad for you now, when clearly they had fatal effects long-ago? Is this a story of the origination of clothing?
Now as a grown woman, I think that debating about talking animals or the origin of clothing is immaterial. The first reading from Genesis has a talking snake, a fatal apple, and the origin of clothing. What is a lesson we could learn for today from such an odd story?
It helps me to think of the story as true but not factual. Here are some questions I pondered: What does this story say about God? What does this story say about humans and their relationship to God?
Did God put a tree in the Garden only to tempt humankind and to test their obedience? This does not seem to be something that the Creator of the world would do, especially when that same Creator called all things good. I think this story says more about human’s free will than God’s need for blind obedience. Later on in another book, God says “I have set before you life and death, blessings or curses. Choose life, that you may live!” God wants us to live abundantly!
The woman saw that becoming wise was a good thing, and wanted her kin to become wise also. That was good, but the story points out that created beings cannot become wise outside of the Creator’s way. This is pride. We might come up with different stories today to tell of pride as a sin that breaks communion with Creator God.
Who is the Creator? Each of us individually, and all of us collectively, must say “I(we) am not the Creator. I(we) must live in harmony with the Creator’s rules and other creatures in order to live well.” We must say this every day. Our feet all stand on the same ground.
One of my favorite sources of humor in the Scriptures is understatement. This Gospel passage employs it when the author writes: He fasted for forty days and nights, and afterward was hungry. Of course Jesus was hungry! This was probably a device to get the reader to pay attention, just as the oddity of a talking serpent in the first reading also calls for attention.
The first temptation is to turn the stones into bread. This is a good and right thing, in accord with how things work: if you’re hungry, eat some food! But how is each temptation introduced by the tempter? With the small but powerful word “If.” Jesus would need to doubt who he is, to appropriate God’s power for himself.
The second temptation would be to doubt that he is truly loved by God. Jesus knows he is loved! “If” you are loved, prove it and make God do your own will, make yourself powerful and have the Creator do the creature’s will. Again, here comes pride, sneaking in under the guise of love.
Stories always come in threes. The third temptation is yet another manifestation of the temptation to pride. To follow something other than the Creator’s will is pride. I(we) can do whatever I(we) want! Since God is powerful to do anything, let’s make God do our will! This is the same temptation as in the Genesis story: I(we) can make the Creator do our will so I(we) will be powerful and somehow better than others. We will become like gods! Loving anything else other than God, loving our own appetites and greed and pride and lust, we have this Satanic tendency to put ourselves or our rules in the place of the Creator, who knows how life should be lived.
This sin of pride is called a “Trespass” in the second reading from Romans. By saying that we will not live according to the way of life given by the Creator, we are “trespassing” on God’s territory. Trespassing because only God can be God, not us. This is disobedience because we did not live in accord with the Creator’s law of love.
As Benedictines, we talk a lot about obedience. It is one the strands of our threefold Monastic Profession. To many people, this word is a major turn-off. Why, what is obedience? The common understanding is that it is simply doing what someone tells you, in spite of your own judgment otherwise. I like to think: what is it not? The Genesis reading and the Matthew reading both say what obedience is not: obedience is not living outside of the Creator’s harmony. We are free, but as creatures not to aspire to be greater than the Creator. Many think, as the serpent implies in Genesis, that obedience is a burden to make us less free and keep us from necessary knowledge or wisdom.
Obedience to what? To the will of God, the way of the Creator. But is this will of God is not burdensome. As the psalm states, it is the “joy of your (God’s) salvation!” Live righteously—in the right way—according to the law of love. Therefore, we are obedient to love. Not to those who would use us, not to those who would cause us to doubt who we are, not to those who would have us doubt the Creator, but to love. Not to things outside us, but to the presence of God among us as love: in ourselves, in God, in animals, and in our fellow humans. As St. Hildegard of Bingen says:
“This is the radiant way, the laudable way: wakening and reawakening all that lives!”
Someone told me a funny story having to do with obedience the other day. I will paraphrase it as I remember it.
There was a congregation that was debating whether to stand or to sit during the Great Prayer in the middle of the service. Some said that out of reverence for God, the congregation should stand. Others said that to show humility, the congregation should sit. The quarrel became progressively more bitter and contentious, until one side was ready to secede and start their own congregation. The congregation did not really want this to happen, so they sent a representative from each side to ask an old rabbi who knew the tradition well.
The one representative stated the case that he thought all the congregation should stand. The rabbi said “No, that is not the tradition.”
Full of excitement, the other representative said, “I knew I was right! Then we are to sit, after all?”
The rabbi said “No, that is not the tradition either.”
“Then if we don’t sit or stand, what do we do? What is the real tradition?” the representatives asked.
The rabbi said “To sit, to stand. These are nonessentials. But you are following the real tradition. You debate and contend among yourselves what is right, you search out the truth together, and yet you stay one people. This, this, is the tradition!”