When a bride and groom got married they used to make different vows. The man would promise to love, comfort and honour his wife. The woman promised to love and honour her husband, to obey and serve him.  When the marriage service was rewritten the vows were made the same: both promise to love and to cherish each other. There is still the option for the woman to add the word ‘obey’. I have previously offered the groom, for a small financial inducement, to slip in the word ‘obey’, only to be told by those whose wives made this vow, that it never made any difference anyhow!

That reminds me of two friends of my parents who always made their decisions democratically they would discuss the matter together and then do what she wanted.

In a time of self-expression, independence and autonomy, the concept of obedience is out of fashion. It is a concept tainted by atrocities carried out by those who were ‘only obeying orders’.

The account from Genesis when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, is lauded as proof of Abraham’s faith; he passed the test of obedience to God and was thus blessed as the father of many descendents. But it is a chilling awful story. An old man hears an inner voice telling him he must kill his son, the son and heir he has yearned for, for so long.  Were this to happen today, Abraham would be locked up in Broadmoor and Isaac put into care.

Perhaps we might take this as an extreme example to prove a point. If put to the test of obedience how far would we remain faithful?

Obedience comes more naturally to some than to others. Monks and nuns take a vow of obedience to their superiors. Members of the armed forces work within a chain of command. Anyone in employment will have to do as directed by managers. Children must obey their parents and their teachers. We all have to obey the laws of the state or face the consequences.  Perhaps those least obliged to obey orders are those who have retired, who have shaken off the shackles of obedience. In this country we potentially have a huge force of grey-haired anarchists.

Jenny Joseph looked forward to freedom old age would bring when she would wear purple and a red hat that did not match, and spend all her money on brandy and satin sandals, and learn to spit. But for now she needed to be responsible and set a good example for the children.

Jesus is the paragon of obedience to God. He knew the way that he had to follow. ‘I have come down from heaven not to do my will but the will of him who sent me,’ he said. In the garden of Gethsemane he struggled to accept the Father’s will, ‘take this cup of suffering away from me’ he prayed, before he stopped himself and added ‘yet not my will but yours be done.’ Though he was the Son of God he learned obedience through what he suffered. 

Jesus is both the model of obedience, and the means by which we obey God. Up on Mount Tabor, the voice from heaven commanded the disciples, ‘this is my beloved Son, listen to him.’ Our obedience to God comes not so much from the direction of an inner voice but from discerning the voice of  Jesus in the gospel, from taking to heart and obeying his commandments. And he does command: forgive one another, pray for those who do you harm, go the extra mile when necessary, love one another as I have loved you.

Obedience has been described as the tomb of self-will, the means by which we guard against seeking our own advantage and putting our own interests before those of God and other people.  We must be on our guard and examine our motives. Cardinal Basil Hume, himself a benedictine monk and bound by a vow of obedience to his superiors, remarked that no wolf is cleverer at assuming sheep’s clothing than the wolf of self-will. It is easy to make ourselves the centre of our own little universe to live our lives just for our own self-aggrandisement, our own self-gratification.

We balance our aspirations within the constraints of the circumstances of our lives, with the challenges to love God and others more than ourselves. To obey God is to trust God. Uncertainty about the future encourages us to trust in God’s providence, to accept that we are casual travelers through life rather ones who have worked out the route in advance.  As St Paul says, with God on our side who can be against us?