Thursday April 22, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Second Week of Easter
Reading (Acts 5:27-33) Gospel (St. John 3:31-36)
In the first reading, the apostles say to the high priest, Better for us to obey God rather than men. And Our Lord, in the Gospel reading, tells us, Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys Him will not see life. Now there is a fine point here that needs to be made, and that has to do with the nature of obedience. Obedience is absolutely essential. It is the means by which we have been saved. And it is something that is incumbent upon all of us. As Americans, we do not like the idea of obedience very well. We think that we have freedom and therefore that means we can do anything we want and no one can tell us any differently. But the reality is that all of us have to be obedient to someone or to something; the question is to whom.
For religious, who make a vow of obedience, the way it is always understood is “obedience in all things but sin”. And so if anybody who is a legitimate authority over you would ever ask you to do something sinful, you must say “no” because you have to be obedient to the law of God first and foremost. But with regard to anything else, obedience is assumed, even if it seems ludicrous or ridiculous on the natural level.
There is the famous story of Saint Francis of Assisi who took his new novices out into the garden and gave each of them a turnip. He said, “I want you to dig a hole,” and they all dug a hole. Then he said, “Now I want you to put the turnip in the ground with the green part down and the point sticking up.” One of the novices spoke up and said, “Brother Francis, everyone knows that you don’t put a turnip in with the green part down.” And Saint Francis said, “This wasn’t a test of whether you understood gardening; this was a test of your obedience,” and then sent him home because there was no room for a monk who could not be obedient. On the natural level, what Saint Francis was doing was to tell him to do something that seemed completely wrong, but that was not the issue.
Something that all of us need to learn is that we might even know better than somebody who is a superior above us, and it does not matter. If they ask us to do something then we have to be obedient to that. We do not like that very well because we think we know better. But if somebody is a legitimate authority above us, we have to recognize that to the degree that they have that position they speak on behalf of God. Now we have a right to speak up and say something, but if it is made clear that this is what they want then that is what we have to do, unless they are asking us to do something that is a sin. Now that is hard; but when we think about it, we realize that when we stand before God, if we are put under obedience to do something, all we will have to answer to God for is whether or not we were obedient. The person who put us under obedience is going to have to answer to God for what they asked us to do. In that case, it is absolutely essential that we are able to make that proper distinction: We are never obedient to something that would be sinful. Recall, when they were pressing the Nazi soldiers, that the soldiers tried to say, “But this is what we were told to do,” and they said, “That’s not an excuse in a case like this.” The same is true in any other area. If we are put under obedience to do something that is a sin, we must say “no”; to everything else, we have to humbly submit.
That is very, very painful. And yet when we look again at our own salvation, we have Jesus, Who says, “Not my will be done, but Yours.” The hardest, most painful part of the spiritual life is to die to self, to get rid of self-will, to get rid of one’s own way of doing things and to do things according to the way that someone else wants them done – particularly God. The only way that is going to happen is if we get it crushed or beaten out of us by having to be obedient when we do not want to be, by having to submit our own will to somebody else’s. These are not easy things.
But we can always remember that what God wants for us is the best, only the best. And so if we are willing to accept that God will always bring good out of the situations and He always wants only what is best, then to place ourselves in complete submission to His Holy Will is something that becomes much easier because we know it will be the best. But it is hard because God does not let us see it beforehand; He just simply asks that we make the act of the will and trust, and then on the other side we will see the good that He brought out of it. But He does not show it to us beforehand because that would make it too easy.
He allows us, then, to make the choice. Are we going to do it His way? Or are we going to do it our way? When we think about what that implies and then we think about what Our Lord told us in the Gospel, that whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, it puts it into clear perspective for us. To do it our way is going to lead us to eternal condemnation. To do it God’s way will lead to life.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.