I enjoy reading these Christian classics, looking for nuggets of wisdom that have stood through the centuries. Perhaps one thing I like most is that these classics come from a different time and place. This means that the authors think and write things that may sound odd or surprising or even totally wrong.
Today is one of the latter. In his classic Rule, St. Benedict writes on Obedience in chapter five:
The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This becometh those who, on account of the holy subjection which they have promised, or of the fear of hell, or the glory of life everlasting, hold nothing dearer than Christ – St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 264-265). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.
This obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men then only, if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint, because the obedience which is rendered to Superiors is rendered to God – St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 274-276). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.
Obedience to the one in authority without delay, without complaining, without question? Sounds like a recipe for disaster and scandal or worse. Benedict does cite a Bible verse here, but I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 21:28-31
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.
Some people, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, were full of good talk. Yet there was no follow through. Jesus lifts up as an example those who might hesitate, even refuse, to obey but soon go to work. For Jesus in this case, it is actions more than words that count.
Of course, everything we say is said in a specific situation. To Jesus here, actions may speak louder then words. But if Jesus is our ultimate example, we know the goal is not choosing one (actions) or the other (words), but having both. The best son would be the one who says he will do the work and actually does it, but such a person does not appear in Jesus’ story. Well, Jesus is that best son who perfectly combines actions and words, so that son is the one telling the story!
Benedict is writing to monks who have taken a vow to obey the abbot, the head of the monastery. As Benedict says, quoting scripture, the one who hears the abbot’s command has heard God’s. Our individualism and anti-authoritarian attitude balk at this. A lot of bad has happened when people blindly follow authority figures, quickly and without questioning, as Benedict wants. Much of this bad has happened when those authority figures claim to speak for God.
So I am not with Benedict here because I simply don’t think there is any human who deserves such unquestioning, unflinching obedience. But there is still an important lesson to learn, for perhaps we have gone too far the other direction. After all, a lot of good has happened when the authority figure is a good mentor. Such good mentors, the best mentors, will direct those under them to obedience to Jesus Christ, the one who perfectly combines actions and words. We don’t need to join a monastery to experience the value of learning from good mentors.