By Jessica Gosnell
In “The Place of Obedience,” Thomas Merton speaks of the importance of understanding the context of religious obedience. A person’s decision to obey must not be an abandonment of his liberty but a mature use of it, a choice.
Merton adds that obedience is best understood as a dialogue between two responsibilities. A person obeys because he wishes to exercise his function in the context of a greater picture of love. Similarly, the superior commands so that his followers perform more truly, sincerely and intelligently. Merton indicates that it is the superior’s responsibility to imbue his subjects with the information and confidence that makes mature obedience possible. Conse-quently, on both the side of command and obedience, those involved must appreciate the greater picture and work together to create an environment in which each is meaningfully able to contribute.
I was reminded of this when comparing Mark’s Gospel for last Sunday with John’s Gospel for this Sunday. Both are readings in which Jesus is identified as an authority figure; however, in these Gospels the response of those he is leading is quite different. In the first, Peter, James and John come back down from the mountain after seeing the transfiguration. Jesus insists that they not tell anyone about what they have seen until after he has risen from the dead. They obey Jesus’ command although Mark notes that they did not understand what “rising from the dead” meant. On the face of it, we might accuse the apostles of failing to be fully engaged in obedience. They accepted Jesus’ command, uncertain of what they had been asked. However, under Merton’s interpretation of proper obedience these men were able to judge the competency of their leader and act, intentionally, under his guidance.
Just after the transfiguration, Mark describes the men as being terrified and notes that, as a result, Jesus does not know what to say to them. Again, a superficial reading of the Gospel might suggest that Jesus has failed them as a leader. How could we say that Jesus has ushered them to freely chosen service when he could not even make them comprehend what was going on? Of course, the reality is quite different. Jesus was not being called upon to lead his disciples just this one time. He had built a foundation of trust with them. Through a pattern of behavior he has secured their faith and made them understand that what he commands is consistent with their will. The confidence he has earned makes them able to intelligently and sincerely choose to obey him. This is further emphasized by Jesus’ failure to respond to Peter when Peter addresses him. The history these men have with Jesus has solidified their loyalty to him. Knowing that they are operating with a shared vision enables them to move forward when there are no words to explain the details.
John describes a very different scene. Jesus directs the men in the temple with whips and scolding. The Jews not only question Jesus’ authority in casting them from the temple, but openly doubt what he tells them in response. These men have no relationship with Jesus, so their reaction does not surprise us. Although Jesus’ commands were clear and not easily misinterpreted, we might expect men who were carrying on just as they always did to question the commands of this stranger. Just as in Mark’s account, the disciples did not understand what was being said. With time and experience they came to believe what Jesus told them.
This highlights the relationship between faith and love in religious obedience. It is easier to make a leap of faith when you have confidence in the one who requests it. Faith often requires action without reason, a seemingly direct contradiction to the reflective requirement of obedience. Peter, James and John acted intentionally, freely choosing to obey because they were confident that their leader, acting in a context of love, would demand from them only what is necessary.
Another important lesson in the comparison of these two stories has to do with our response to the guidance given to us by our leaders. Merton writes in his articles on monastic life that accepting a position of obedience is difficult when one continues to resist the proper role of reflection in one’s responsibilities. This is illustrated in John’s Gospel. The Jews had no reason to trust Jesus and were being upbraided for what had become accepted practice to them.
It is easy to continue doing things as we have always done them and to discount the criticisms or recommendations of people who challenge our habits. We are called to wisely and intentionally choose our actions. Not because they are habit, not simply because they are commanded, but because we believe with considered conviction that they are right.
(Jessica Gosnell is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)