Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Forgotten O-Word

Of the vows taken by a nun, monk, or priest, chastity tops the list for most people as the toughest. To the secular mind, influenced by the legacy of Freud, extended periods of celibacy are risky; lifelong celibacy would surely leave one mentally unhinged. But even for many believers, the idea of giving up a spouse and family just seems too hard.
Some thought might go toward the second vow taken by those in religious orders (though not by diocesan priests)—poverty—which would be a real hardship for many in our materialistic culture.
The whole vocation idea having already been dismissed, most people don’t ever think about the other vow all priests and religious take—obedience. But according to many who have taken and are living out these vows, this is the real kicker.

        When one thinks about it, though, it makes sense. Really, the hardest thing to give up is one’s own will.
We Americans should certainly understand this. If the typical movie or TV show is any indication, our culture instead admires independence, self-assertiveness, and even defiance. Every other movie glorifies someone who bucks the system—boss, government, parent—and is proven in the end to be right and heroic to have done so.
Of course, most of us obey in areas that will otherwise get us into trouble—we wouldn’t think of stealing or assault. We do what our boss asks and speak to him respectfully, at least to his face. But we don’t think twice about ignoring laws or rules that are socially acceptable to disobey and easy to get away with.
        There are dozens of examples. Copying copyrighted material; not reporting cash income or other little ways of cheating on one’s taxes; breaking traffic laws when the coast is clear; pilfering small items from large companies like hotels or supplies from one’s employer; lying about one’s age to get something cheaper, etc., etc.
Most people, if they know they can get away with it, don’t give doing such things a second thought. Why wouldn’t you do them? Obeying the rules in such instances seems not only ridiculous but even scrupulous. “It doesn’t hurt anyone.” “This large company can easily absorb it—they’re overcharging anyway.” “Everyone does it.”
But what does God think about it? How can we know? Well, He actually did address this quite a bit in the Bible. 
The IRS didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, but the Roman Empire did, and it certainly collected taxes. Some people (usually Zealots) questioned paying the tax—but for religious reasons, not to save a few bucks—and what did Jesus say? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Lk 20:25).
This would of course not only apply to tax evasion today as well, but also to civil laws. St. Paul makes this clear: “Pay all ... [authorities] their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13:7). 
This teaching is based also on the long-standing Scriptural idea that earthly authority comes from God. In the Old Testament, we read, “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles govern the earth” (Prov 8:15). Jesus echoed this when he said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11).
Thus Paul teaches: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13: 1-2).
Peter writes similarly: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him…. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:13-17).
        Of course, there are evil rulers and bad laws. Obviously, if there is a conflict between human authority and divine, “we must obey God rather than men,” as Peter says in Acts 5:29. Likewise the great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas explained that though civil government has the right to create laws for the good of society and Christians should obey them as deriving from God’s law, still when a civil law is contrary to divine law we shouldn't obey it.
        The point is that when we are obedient to someone in rightful authority over us, God takes it as obedience to Himself. (And that leads us to another reason for obedience—the heart of the matter—but we'll get to that next week.)
        Lent is a great time to take out this old-fashioned virtue, dust it off, and give it a try. It may very well prove to be a harder penance than any we’ve ever undertaken.

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