Sunday, July 25, 2010

Why obedience?

Last Wednesday evening, I had dinner with a former coworker of mine and her husband in Yafo. It took us a little while to settle on a restaurant because I had had some trouble locating a strictly kosher restaurant in the area. Neve Tzedek seemed to cater more to the secular crowd. I finally asked the concierge, who must not have understood my question. Fortunately, Ian figured I might need a little help, and he booked a reservation at a restaurant close to my hotel. The food was excellent, and I had a very nice conversation with Jo and Ian.

I asked about their daughters, and they gave me a good report on the events of their lives. The younger finished her military service within the last year. The elder was pursuing graduate studies and seeking work as a part-time editor. She also informed me with clearly visible relief that the elder daughter had returned to religious observance. At its very basic, religious observance involves keeping Shabbat, praying three times a day (or four on holidays), observing rituals that accompany various activities (such as prayers before and after meals), observing the high holy days, and observing Kashrut or the dietary laws as well as other purity laws. The basic law is outlined in the Torah in the 613 mitzvot or commandments, the Decalogue being an overarching set of categorical commandments underwhich the remaining commandments fall. This description is a simplification the law, but I think it captures the essence.

Many Christians consider these observances to be the "legalism" that Christ condemned in the gospel accounts, but Jesus was an obersvant Jew. His beef was not with the Law of Moses but with the interpretation given to these laws by various rabbis and scribes during and before His life—those laws that added to the burden of others or allowed one to avoid the spirit of the Law while fulfilling the letter. However, to look at the Law only as a set of restrictions is missing the point of obedience to the commandments. As one rabbi put it, each mitzvah performed was an act of love given to God. If they understand, they obey out of love.

This point is also lost on many Christians (Catholic and non-). We think of the moral teachings in scripture to be voluntary or matters solely of "personal conscience," which, in fact, is mere personal preference. Or worse, we judge them to be artifacts of a culture having little relevance to our times now. Adhering to ritual or moral obligation is condemned as legalistic or Pharisaical. These people miss the point of following moral teaching. First and foremost, it should be motivated by a love for God and a desire to please Him. He is a forgiving, merciful God, but that is no reason to disregard the Law. It is a reason to follow it.

We must look at obedience to God as part of having a right relationship with God. Just as we respect our parents' wishes out of love, we do as God has revealed in scripture and tradition because we want to remain in relationship with Him. When we sin and "miss the mark" (hamartia), we turn even if only slightly away from that relationship... as if we're looking at God askance, distracted by something else to the left or right, or even behind us. Enough of these turns, and we are moving away from God, not toward Him.

Are their consequences to disobedience? Absolutely, just as there are natural consequences when we break relationship with anyone in our lives. Why would we expect to have a good relationship with someone if we constantly do things to injure that person? Sin results from our selfish tendencies, our concupiscience, and the consequences of sin is separation and isolation. We see this principle operate in human relationships all the time. Our human relationships, being analogous to our relationship with the Father, exemplify the effects of sin and obedience. Just as we honor father and mother by showing them obedience appropriate to our stage in life, we do the same when we obey God and the Church He founded.
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