On Obedience

Merry Christmas!!These are the complete readings for today. Below are excerpts:

Sir 3:2
“God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons. ”

Ps 128:1-2
“Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; blessed shall you be, and favored.”

Lk 2:46
“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions…”

What struck me as I went over these readings over the last week is the stark contrast between the imperative tone of both the Psalm and Sirach, compared to the actions of Jesus in the passage from Luke. Both the Psalm and Sirach exhort the reader to be subject to the Lord, and for the family to be subject to the father; whereas Jesus explicitly defies his parents by remaining in the temple and engaging the priests in religious debate. To find the through line, I turned to an alternate reading from the First Book of Samuel (Protty’s don’t acknowledge Sirach, apparently).

Samuel was a prophet born to Hannah, a barren woman who pleaded with the Lord to be granted a child. In return, she promised that her child would be given to the Lord “for as long as he lives; neither wine nor liquor shall he drink, and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (1Sm 1:11). Basically, she promised he would be raised as a monk. When Samuel was born she made good on her promise and left him in the care of Eli, who was then “judge” over Israel. (I don’t know exactly what that means, but from what I can glean he was basically a religious ruler — PLEASE feel free to elucidate this for me!)

This is where things get interesting. As Samuel grew older, Eli’s power waned and his sons did more and more of the judgery for Israel. Problem was, Eli’s sons were corrupt. They would literally steal meat from the sacrifice — poking forks into the boiling water and grabbing the best stuff. They didn’t give a shit about the Lord, or about the people of Israel. They were abusing their power.

The Book of Samuel continues: first, with a little B-story about the Philistines stealing the Ark of the Covenant and developing — no kidding — hemorrhoids, then rejoining Samuel towards the end of his life, when he is in exactly the same state as Eli was: an old, devout man (and “judge” of Israel) whose sons are greedy and corrupt.

The elders of Israel ask him to appoint a king over Israel, to rule alongside the judge and, it is implied, prevent Samuel’s sons from taking over. Samuel chooses Tall Saul, who fails to lead the Israelites properly because he is not devoted to the Lord above all else. By the end of Samuel 1 Saul is dead, and Samuel 2 starts with David assuming the throne. Unlike Saul, David is the ideal leader: devoted to the Lord and to spiritual pursuits before terrestrial, human ones.  (The story of David and Goliath can be read metaphorically as a triumph of inner spirit over outer bodily strength).

NOTE: There’s a good deal of evidence that David was gay; at the very least, his relationship to Saul’s son Jonathan is as homoerotically charged/ambiguous as Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad. This was news to me.

OK, so enough back story. What are we to take from these competing texts?

To get at the first question, let me ask another: what is the role of discipline in religion? Why are the most devout of any religion also required to lead the most ascetic lives? Can we argue that, since this is an observed behavior in relation to the broad social construct known as “religion,” it is somehow a natural product of religion? That is, if we approach religion the way a biologist taxonomizes plants and animals — by ignoring the specific, and attempting to draw conclusions based on broad characteristics — can we not argue that one of the “features” of religion is its demand for discipline?

The image I find useful is that of stones rubbing against one another in a river bed. The smoothest stones are those that have been there the longest, because they have rubbed against others the most. This is the image of the ego/self in relation to discipline. We impose rules on ourselves as a way of determining what our limits are, where the stone stops and the river begins. Because the chipping of our edges are where we find ourselves, they are also the moments we experience life in its raw beauty. Much of our lives we are half-awake or half-aware, but the moments when we feel fully alive are the moments which matter. Discipline encourages these moments to come forth–it encourages us to chip away at our inner constructs and to find the smooth, perfect stone within.

There’s a story at the beginning of Samuel 1 which may be informative here. When he is a young man, Samuel hears the voice of the Lord calling to him in the night but mistakes it for the voice of Eli (Israel’s judge and his teacher). He goes to Eli to ask him what he wants, and Eli tells him to go back to sleep. As things often do in The Bible, this happens three times. Finally, on the third time Eli says “I want you to quit waking me up, is what I want!” Just kidding. Actually the third time around, Eli tells Samuel that what he is hearing is the voice of the Lord. He tells Samuel to ask the Lord what he wants him to do.

So you see: Samuel mistook the voice of the Lord for the voice of man. He believed it was Eli calling to him, but it was the Lord. It was his inner self, or his Buddha-nature, or the Truth, or whatever you want to call it.

And when he listened to the voice, it told him that because Eli had let his sons get out of control, he would no longer be favored. Samuel told Eli about this the next day — speaking Truth to Power — and Eli knew he was right. Because this is the power of obeying the Lord, of “living in fear” of the Lord. It is the power of honoring what you know to be True, what you fear is True, and what you are afraid to acknowledge is True.

So Luke’s Jesus, the Book of Sirach and the Psalm are not so far afield as they may seem at first glance. When you speak the Truth — when you obey The Lord — you not only chip away at your own rock, you chip away at everyone else’s, too.

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