I was recently trying to write a leadership course session on the subject of obedience; and, as you might guess, I didn’t do very well. I suspect it’s because I struggle with the notion of being obedient and ‘doing as I’m told’; particularly as a woman, as it has so many oppressive overtones of misuse of power and privilege. Our Bishop smiled when he reminded me that as a priest I have taken promises to be obedient. I do remember being nervous at the time of my ordination and recall with relief, that each promise was made with the additional words ‘with God’s grace’!
However, Luke’s Gospel is full of examples of joyful obedience offered as service and with delight as way of expressing God’s love.
Luke spends a lot of time writing about the obedience, and in the early part of the Gospel, it’s the obedience of Mary and Joseph, and their faithfulness to the Torah, the law of Moses and the law of the Lord. Luke, a Gentile, nonetheless affirms over and over again, his understanding of the experience of following and trusting God which expresses itself as love and in carrying out the word of God.
Jesus’ gospel of love is deeply rooted and embedded in Jewish scriptures and the way of living in relationship with God and each other. In Deuteronomy, 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 we are told clearly what obedience to God looks like and feels like. This is repeated by Jesus and we say it every Sunday, that ‘loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving your neighbour as yourself’ is the full sum and expression of obedience and love, a law which is the beating heart of God’s law.
As such, obedience is understood as being derived from, based in, and behaving utterly in the love of one’s neighbour and God, a love without eros, and completely lacking self-indulgence and manipulation. It is a love that comes from God; it is a love freely given without counting the cost and so it is a love that invites joyful obedience.
Such a love requires us to set aside emotions such as greed and selfishness, and instead, to have a focus on liberating people from poverty, sickness, hunger and loving one’s neighbour, whoever and wherever they are, as all are God’s children, made in God’s image, male and female.
Mary’s obedience to God was extraordinary as we’ve heard in the gospel readings over the last few weeks; and yet is also completely normal, as we reflect on Mary and Joseph as faithful Jews, attending synagogue regularly, participating in all the rituals as required, at some cost to themselves, and bringing Jesus up as a faithful son, well versed in the law and prophets.
On this occasion (Luke 2:22-40) Mary, once again, is shown to be doing what has been asked. She names the child Jesus, demonstrating again her willingness to do as God has asked, ‘let it be with me according to your word (1:38).
And Mary attends the synagogue to undergo the purification rituals necessary for a new mother. She and Joseph both attend for the circumcision of Jesus – a ritual required by law; and, they come to bring an offering at the temple, one that was clearly hard for them to comply with as they chose the offering only those of the poorest in society offered, two turtle doves, instead of a lamb and a dove.
This story places Jesus’ parents among the poor. It highlights the passion of Mary’s declaration of love of God in the Magnificat in her words of solidarity with the poor, as she spells out the treatment of the rich and uncaring, and the blessed future of the people of Israel, God’s people. These are words given again and again by the prophets, including Isaiah.
Jesus later brings this good news of love again to the poor – embracing them, healing them, providing hope for the socially marginalised, discriminated againts and economically vulnerable, all those who are outcast and without power. His blessings for the poor and the woes of the rich form the basis of many of his parables and stories. We forget these signs of obedience at our peril.
We cannot conflate obedience and love with greed, consumption and selfishness. We cannot seek to restrict God’s kingdom or collude in a political context that does not acknowledge and make visible God’s kingdom. As Christians our obedience is marked by our love and by our behaviour as a consequence of that love; and the disconnection between what we say and what we do in our lives as Christians must be the subject of much of our reflection.
The prophets, Simeon and Anna welcome Jesus and his family in the temple with joy, concern and deep gratitude to God who is fulfilling God’s promises for people all over the world. Simeon offers a blessing to include all nations, in the spirit of the message of Second Isaiah: Israel’s vocation to bring blessing to the nations is being realised.
As a widow of 84 years, Anna echoes the life and words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2 in prayerful worship in the temple. She praises God, raising her hopes and obedience to God’s love and its expression in Jesus, with the prophecies being fulfilled and the messianic kingdom coming. Salvation is identified as Jesus.
For both Simeon and Anna, faithful obedience prepares them to recognise ‘the Lord’s Christ’ though he is still an infant. For Luke, such faithful obedience enables us to recognise where God is working, even when it is not obvious to others. Simeon and Anna are among the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8) whose obedience to God’s purposes enables them to ‘see God’ when those around them do not.
Faithful obedience in Luke is seen in the work of the Holy Spirit, who reveals, guides and rests on ordinary women and men in fulfillment of God’s promises. Anna’s witness about the child Jesus stems from the Spirit’s leadership. These two prophets offer us an example of what happens when people are open to the work of the Spirit as faithful people of God, who are attentive to the teaching and obligations of being Jewish. In such examples lies opportunities for us as Christians for reflection too.
Luke also emphasises the significance of both men and women in the Jesus story. He includes Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, now Simeon and Anna. With Mary chosen by God and her strikingly simple acceptance of God’s plans, as with many other women through the Bible, their obedience alongside that of men, demonstrates God’s love for all people and is a joyful grace offered by God, and accepted by ordinary men and women throughout the ages.
Ultimately, Jesus’ love for humanity and for God leads him into a struggle against oppression resulting in his crucifixion. As God’s love is made flesh and with absolute faithfulness to that love, Jesus is God persecuted, as peasant, as prophet and as son of God, with the power of God’s love surpassing all worldly opposition and surpassing even the fear of death. Jesus’ obedience takes him to God where we must follow in faith.
We inhabit the same world, one in which peace and justice are as elusive as ever, where selfishness, greed, consumerism, status and wealth are still prioritised and idolised, where other people live lives that are discriminated against and oppressed for no reason other than they exist as the ‘other’. Jesus was and is still the ‘other’, defined by his love, as love incarnate, God’s love for all people.
I started out thinking and reflecting on obedience and I find my heart beats stronger for the choice I can make of obedience even when I fail, as I continue to fall in love with God, and with my neighbour in obedience to God’s invitation, to love with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength and with all my mind.
The Lord be with you.