When I was in the Holy Land, I noticed how eclectic that the people there dressed. I can still remember walking down a narrow Jerusalem street with a Muslim cleric in robes on one side and a Orthodox Jew in black suit on the other, while I was wearing Jeans and a T-shirt, thinking that I looked rather slovenly. I began to take solace in seeing the Franciscan friars who are in charge of the holy sites around Jerusalem. One day, I noticed something particular to Franciscans friars. They wore a simple brown habit with a white rope around their waste, called a cincture. Even the instructor that accompanied us overseas who was a branch of the Franciscans called “Third Order Religious” or TOR sometimes wore a black habit with the same white rope cincture around his waste. I noticed one day that my instructor and all the friars had three knots tied in the their cincture. However, they weren’t where you’d expect them to be, being used to hold the rope on the Franciscan’s body, or making sure it wouldn’t blow in the wind, or connecting the two ends of the cincture. Instead, the knots were tied on one side with, seemingly, no purpose whatsoever. One night while sitting around the supper table, I worked up the courage to ask the instructor what they meant and received the answer that probably should have been somewhat obvious, “these stand for the vows I made when I became a friar, poverty, chastity, and obedience.
That made me start to think about those three things: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Poverty made sense to me. I mean I didn’t become a priest because I wanted to make money. And, I understood that whole idea of not wanting to have stuff sitting around that would interfere with prayer or my service to the people of God and willingness to pull up and go wherever ministry might take me.
And then there was chastity, which I also understood. I mean, who could think of becoming a priest nowadays and not think of celibacy. And, all of us are called to be chaste and faithful to the state of life God has called us to.
Then there was obedience. Ugh! I was glad the Franciscans were called to this life and not me. You can imagine how surprised I was when I discovered that part of the ordination ritual to become a deacon meant that I would place my hands in the prayer position between the Archbishop’s of Dubuque and swear obedience to him and his successors. What did I know about obedience? What did it mean? And, priests aren’t the only ones that are scared of being obedient. I’ve met a good number of couples that need to make sure that the words, “love, honor, and obey” aren’t a part of the vows to a catholic wedding. I think part of this might come down to the fact that many people remember the fifties as a time when women were forced to be subservient and “obedient” to their husbands.
It is no surprise that obedience is such a confusing term since it is that way in the readings too, though you wouldn’t necessarily see it if you just read the readings for today. That first reading, in particular, is a bit deceptive because it isn’t the first chapter in this book. In reality, it is the third chapter of a four-chapter book. We are right in the middle of the story. Before this, Jonah is called to go to this terrible, horrible town to call the people in Iowa City…I mean Nineveh…to repent. But Jonah has no intention of going to this awful city to get them to repent. Jonah is afraid that if he does go and preach repentance, they will repent and God will not destroy their city. Now, you may be asking what Jonah is thinking since that should be his goal but he’s too selfish for that. He’s afraid that the Ninevites will repent, his prediction will not come true and he will be made to look the fool. So, he goes as far away from Nineveh as he can go. But, God sends a storm to batter the boat that he’s on and the sailors throw him off the side where he is swallowed by a large fish. He spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish and ends up being tossed up on the shore of a lake. Finally, at this point, Jonah figures out that God’s call is not easy to avoid. He goes back and God starts at the beginning with his assignment to convert Nineveh.
This is in stark contrast with the gospel. Jesus, while beginning his public ministry, goes along the Sea of Galilee and sees, from among hundreds of boats, two brothers named Simon and Andrew. Using a beautiful turn-of-phrase, he calls these fishermen to fishers-of-men to leave their livelihood and follow him. They aren’t like I, who would likely have told the Lord to wait while I gather the net. They leave it all and follow Jesus. They walk a little further and see James and John with their Father and his hired hands. When Jesus calls them, they leave their family behind and follow him, another prospect that I find quite impossible to do. You may say that Peter and Andrew obediently followed Jesus into poverty and James and John with chastity.
So, it seems to me, obedience is a central part of the Christian vocation. We learn this obedience in the context of the human family, beginning when two spouses pledge mutual obedience, husband to wife and wife to husband, since both are obedient to the Lord. They, in turn, teach this obedience to their children. Yet this doesn’t stop at the level of the nuclear family because children must learn to obey each other and aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents; all in an obedience of love to God the father.
All of this is meant to foster the kind of obedience that drove the first disciples and is at the heart of the members of the church. That’s why I find it so troubling when certain priests and even some bishops immediately denounce controversial stands that the Vatican takes. Sometimes even before reading the document, the priests air their “grievances” in public and create a culture of disobedience.
If we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we must be obedient to his word. That means we listen to the leaders that he has set to lead the church, the bishops along with their head the Pope, and be open that, sometimes, church teaching is slow in changing because the church is very cautious. And sometimes the church is not going to go the way we’d like them to go. We must be like the first disciples and obediently follow the voice of Christ and his successors, the bishops.