Here in America, the themes of obedience, authority, and personal responsibility can be somewhat controversial. How much authority should the government have to tell us what to do? Should it regulate the size of soft drinks, as is being debated in New York? Should it be able to dictate our healthcare decisions? In war, should soldiers obey every command of their officers? How much obedience do teens and young adults owe to their parents, when it comes to decisions about chosing their friends or their educational path, or their clothing and hairstyle?
When talking about human authority, there are some clear-cut situations, but there are others where there can be a lot of legitimate discussion and disagreement about what the boundaries of authority are and when people are bound or not bound to obey. However, as the first reading reminds us, there it is always right to obey God. This is not just because God is all-powerful and will be our judge on the last day. That’s not a bad reason, but there’s a much better reason: whatever God commands – in this case, the Ten Commandments – is really the wisest thing to do.
The reason for this is simple: God loves us and wants what’s best for us, and since He is our Creator, He really knows what will be most helpful for us. If we buy a car or a computer or some other expensive, complicated device, we all know that following the manufacturer’s instructions is the right thing to do if we want to get the most out of what we’ve bought without breaking it. Even if we men usually only read the instructions if we utterly fail to figure it out on our own… Each human being is worth more than any machine, and our lives are more complicated too. That much more reason to follow God’s commandments, our “manufacturer’s instruction manual”, which will make our lives truly “wise and intelligent.”
In the second reading, St. Paul reminds us again that we have to be humble in accepting God’s word and putting it into practice, being “doers of the Word and not hearers only”. Submission to God’s will isn’t weakness or lack of creativity; it’s a sign of intelligence and foresight. And the example that Paul gives “true religion” is significant: helping those most in need, loving others as God has loved us.
There is a danger of thinking that obedience is an end in itself, instead of a means to living life fully and reaching true happiness and fulfillment. That was the error of the Pharisees and scribes in today’s Gospel. They thought that fulfilling the law for it’s own sake was the road to holiness, and they ended up adding more and more to the Law, contrary to God’s intention. Jesus points out that the law is meant to be didactic, forming our hearts, becoming something that comes from within, not a rigid formalism imposed from the outside. God teaches us what is right so that we can learn from Him and make our hearts more like His, loving what He loves and hating whatever is contrary to His will, so we will thrive. We need to have His law written on our hearts, so that we are freely choosing what is right. If we learn to love God and neighbor according to God’s plan, then the Ten Commandments become the logical way to act.
May God grant us all to receive His word with a humble heart and to put it into practice, so that we may all truly be pure of heart and generous and loving in our deeds. May He help us today and always to be thankful for the gift of His revelation, which teaches us how to act in the wisest way for us to reach the fullness of happiness in heaven, which is what God wants for all of us.