Obedience: Listening in love

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at the Benefice Service on Sunday 2nd July in St Mary’s Garsington.

Genesis 22:1-18; Matthew 10: 40-end In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There was a young man who wanted to enter the religious life and become a Trappist monk.  It was a very strict order where the brothers were only allowed to speak two words every ten years.  After the ten years the monk came before his abbot who said to him “What would you like to say”, he replied “Bed Broken”.  Another ten years went by and the monk came before the abbot once again and this time when the abbot asked him what he wanted to say, he said “Still broken”.  The years passed and a third time the monk was given his chance to say two words.  This time the monk replied “I’m leaving’.  “Thank goodness” say s the abbot, “you’ve done nothing but moan since you’ve got here’.

This is how we often view obedience.  It’s a term, which has come to make many of us shudder today.  It doesn’t seem to have any good connotations whatsoever, and appears to be in direct contradiction to many of the things we prize most highly, such as freedom and personal choice. In contrast, obedience is often seen as a narrowing down of life by submitting one’s will to another in a servile sense, to the extent of abdicating from personal responsibility. As children we were all taught to be obedient to our parents, our teachers, well basically anyone who was older than us, and though at times this may have been challenged or negotiated it was still pretty clear at the end of the day who was in charge. Its not surprising therefore that obedience has often been equated with an infantile state of submission in the best-case scenario and as dictatorial oppression in the worst. Well our first reading this morning seems to uphold this view of obedience. To any sensible person, God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son seems outrageous, regardless of whether it be a test of faith or not. How could a loving God command such a thing of a faithful servant, surely these are the actions of a tyrannical bully? Can you imagine if you were told to sacrifice your child on a mountain top? Not good news!


Equally shocking though is Abraham’s apparent blind obedience. In true Old Testament brevity, we know nothing of what Abraham is thinking or feeling about such a command, all we are told is that he obeyed without a word of question or complaint. Surely this is an example of religious oppression at its worst and we can’t blame it on a human institution this time as it comes from the very mouth of God. It would be easy to dismiss this passage as being about the spiritual legend, Abraham, who, either impresses or horrifies us by his faithful obedience, but either way are out of our league. Easier still would be to interpret this passage differently and stress not the obedience, which is asked of Abraham but the faith he shows. But this would be to avoid a very thorny issue and not answering a charge, which is often laid against God. Given this, how then are we to understand this passage, let alone apply its wisdom within our lives? Maybe one of the things, which clamours at our ears and prevents us from listening to the Word in these passages, is our negative and fearful understanding of obedience itself. Obedience has not always had such connotations, as can be seen in story from the desert fathers, those Monks of the early Church:


Four monks who came to see the great desert father, Abba Pambo. Each spoke about the virtue of one of the others. The first fasted a great deal, the second was poor, the third had acquired great charity and they said of the fourth that he had lived for twenty years in obedience to an old man. Abba Pambo said to them, “I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest. Each of the others had obtained the virtue he wished to acquire, but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another”. The monk who “lived in obedience to an old man” was devoted to the loving service of another.


Therefore, obedience has been held as the highest of all the virtues, not because it was to do with submitting to another’s will but because it was to do with loving service of another. This understanding of obedience can be found at the very root of its meaning, as those of you who know your Latin will appreciate.


The word obedience comes from the Latin obaudire, which does not mean to obey but rather to listen. The prefix ob can be translated as ‘in the direction of’ whilst audire means to hear. The word obedience thereby conjures up the image of leaning towards someone, straining to hear what they are saying, giving them all your loving attention as if your life depended on it. Obedience therefore is not so much about hearing and obeying as listening in love to another. From this understanding of obedience the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son is no longer simply seen as a test of his obedience to the will of God, but rather of his loving trust in God. God tells Abraham that he must do the impossible and he listens and does what he is asked, not out of obedience but out of loving trust. All parents know that, whilst a child may see obedience as your will over theirs, from the parents point of view all is done out of love and concern. Explanations may make this all clear, but when a two year old is on the verge of rushing into a road, what is important is that, regardless of whether they can see the car or not, the child in loving trust immediately hears the voice of the parent and listens or obeys. It is this depth of love and trust that God tests in Abraham and the result of this is not so much a reward of many offspring, as the ratification of this relationship in a covenant between God and the people of Abraham. This willingness to give up our own desire for what we want for the sake of others is no longer a servile obedience rather the path to freedom and fullness of life. We can always name instances when people have sought to get what they want, but lets not forget those acts of kindness and goodness and love, where individuals set have aside their own concerns and fears and strained to listen to the needs of others and been obedient to God’s call to love one another. As Jesus says in our gospel this morning: whoever welcomes the stranger, and shows love and kindness, especially to children, will not lose their reward.

So let us this morning in loving trust strain once more to listen to the words of Christ to “Come, follow me” and to seek to walk in his way of loving obedience which casts out fear and leads to the freedom of fullness of life. Amen.