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Yes, Obedience Is Still Virtuous

Obedience is hard, and we live in difficult times. But that doesn't mean we throw obedience by the wayside.

Obedience is hard.

I don’t know that we are all that much different from dogs, who can be amazingly good at obedience after the kind of training that associates obedience with happiness, often in the form of treats. When I say to my dog, “Sit,” or “Come,” you can sometimes see the calculation in her eyes: What’s in it for me?

Rules and laws are complicated, and their rationality is not always super-obvious. If there were a rule saying you should not eat the extra copy paper found in the office copy room, you would think it ridiculous because, I mean, who would do that? We don’t usually make rules about commonsense, well-known things. But there are also times when we have rules that seem at once obvious and difficult to keep: Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Few of us would really doubt that those rules are good and reasonable.

But beyond those rules, which are obviously good, are two other categories that cause us more trouble. First let’s look at the extreme: the laws that are obviously not good, the rules that are fundamentally against the reasonable order of justice. These laws are not just hard to keep; there’s an argument to be made for purposefully not keeping them. This is a relevant question in our national life, and hardly a new one.

The hardest kinds of rules, I think, are the kind in the middle. These are the kinds of rules and laws that are neither obviously just nor obviously unjust. Type 1: Don’t stand in the middle of the road when cars are coming. I can follow that rule. Type 3: Some towns in the U.K. have declared it illegal to pray—even silently—in front of abortion facilities. No one should try to keep that law, being obviously opposed to natural and divine law.

But what about Type 2, like pretty much any law having to do with forms or bureaucracy? Or if Mom says no screen time before 4 P.M.? Or if the USCCB says we have to keep Epiphany not on January 6, but on the Sunday that falls between January 2 and 9?

Let’s be honest: these rules may have reasons behind them, but to most of us, they seem arbitrary. It’s not as though there’s this law of nature, written on the DNA of every oak leaf, saying, All children must be ready for bed by 8 P.M. These are the rules that sometimes people try to push or bend. They’re the kind of rules that, when asked why, parents might say, “Because I said so.”

Should we obey them or not? Why?

Last week, the Church celebrated Candlemas, the day when the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple, as well as the day when his mother finished her time of ritual purification, which is to say recovery from childbirth. Mary and Joseph do this because, you know, the law says to do it. But if you think about all of the things that Christians believe about Jesus—fully divine, perfect, son of God—not to mention Our Lady—conceived without sin, virgin even after giving birth—it’s a little weird that this God-child and his immaculate mother would have to go through all these rituals. It’s not as if they need them. They haven’t done anything wrong—and arguably, they aren’t even ritually unclean—so they certainly don’t need to offer sacrifice in the Temple. Why do they do it, then?

Because they are obedient.

That’s all. And that’s enough.

We don’t really want it to be enough, because we want obedience to have some kind of end, like obey because it will make you a better person. Or obey because it will keep you safe. Or obey because, like my dog, you’ll get treats. These are all reasonable and good reasons in a variety of circumstances. But when you strip away all of those reasons, many of which are tied to human weakness and corruption, you’re left with this simple picture of the holy family obeying the law of God and taking joy in it. Remember: the Presentation is one of the joyful mysteries.

Obviously, we’re not all Jesus, and obviously not every little rule we encounter is the Jewish law, but I think this still gives us an insight into why obedience matters to all of us.

It’s about love. You see, Jesus and his family may not see any particular reason to follow these rules. For them, it’s just a question of whether they love and trust the God who asks it of them. And to that the answer is yes.

My wife and I do not usually give each other commands—usually. But as in any family, we do ask each other to do things all the time. “Hey, honey, while you’re in there can you get me a glass of water?” Or “Someone needs to take the dog out—can you do it?” Or “It’s your turn to change the baby’s diaper.” And the thing about these requests is that they are all arbitrary; they’re not necessary, nor are they particularly just or unjust. They are, I think, opportunities for obedience. But that’s a good thing, because it gives each of us the particular joy of doing something for the other that is done not because it is necessary, but because it was asked. Those are the kinds of actions that make a relationship one of love rather than one of obligation.

We don’t need to romanticize it. And I really don’t mean to suggest that every trip to the DMV needs to be an epiphany, or that bad rules should never be questioned. But there’s a very real question here. When you’re faced with those little requests, those little commands, those seemingly arbitrary rules, how will you take them? Should we always see them as a challenge to our autonomy, or might we rather see them as an opportunity to deepen trust, to deepen relationships and give witness in the world to the grace of God?

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