This is part four of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.* You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. While the parts relate to one another, they can be taken separately, so it’s not necessary to read the other posts as a prerequisite to this.
OBEDIENCE is a nasty word. We like to be in control of our lives, of our destiny. No one likes to be told what to do. Our life of faith, however, IS a life of obedience – of listening, paying attention to the One who has called us to life. “In the Bible, obedience takes the form of listening. The obedient life is one in which Israel listens, attends to, and responds to the voice of God”(p. 81). Most of what WE call listening is really just being quiet as we form our next sentence and wait to speak it. Real listening is hard. And listening for the purpose of obedience is even harder. Our culture pushes against it. Again, we like to be the ones in control. “The preacher, in speaking about obedience, speaks against our modern ways of knowing and controlling. [It] violates the way we think and know and believe in our culture”(p. 82).
The other reason listening is difficult for us is because we are “greedy children of disproportion, caught in an ideology of acquisitiveness”(p. 82). That’s a mouthful. Brueggemann explains, “…social good, social access, and social power are not equally distributed. Some have too little. Some have too much. That some have too much is intimately related to the fact that some have too little…. This economic reality among us impinges on our capacity to hear and respond when we are addressed by God’s voice of command”(p. 82). We are socialized to always want more and to rigorously protect what we have, so as not to lose it. This requires a lot of energy on our part. This energy, this desire to constantly acquire, makes us restless and anxious.
This greed pits us against one another, because it impacts on our ability to make sure that everyone has enough. Our current political climate reeks with the arguments of those who “have much” not wanting to give anything to make sure that those who “have nothing” can have a little more. The rich see the poor as lazy and undeserving of more, while the poor see the rich as hoarders (of money, power and opportunity) and themselves as stuck. Both of these groups of people fill the pews – sometimes even together. “The congregation addressed by the preacher is thus a strange assembly. It includes those who guard the disproportion as benefactors. It also includes those who suffer from the disproportion as victims”(p. 84). How do we encourage listening when speaking of obedience, knowing it is problematic for all who gather in this “strange assembly?”
Finger pointing isn’t helpful and actually discourages real conversation and listening. What is perceived as a command, “YOU MUST DO THIS!” only serves to have folks “dig in” and shut down, a pushback against losing control. Brueggemann reflects, “I have found myself discovering that mostly I do not need more advice, but strength, I do not need new information, but the courage, freedom, and authorization to act on what I already have been given in the gospel”(p.84). I think what Brueggemann is trying to say here is that rather than having the preacher stand in the pulpit, point a finger and say, “This is what you SHOULD do!” it is more constructive, more conducive to listening, more empowering to say, “This is what you CAN do through God who strengthens you!”
Preachers are to extend an invitation to imagine a life beyond the restlessness and greed, beyond the disproportion. Both the hoarders and those in want come seeking hope that God has provided a better way. Because left to their own devices, without the listening that forms obedience, both groups (ALL of us) will die. Those trapped in restless greed will work themselves to death, not realizing it’s NOT the acquiring of things that will give them peace. Those who have “too little” will die from neglect. In the gospel we hear that God is freeing us from that bondage! When we are able to listen and understand that this is God’s Will for us – to be freed from our restlessness and our greed, into a life that has much deeper meaning, we are joyfully and willingly obedient.
Since I used the word bondage above, I will take the time to point out that bondage and willing obedience are NOT the same thing. Bondage is a forced obedience – the obedience of a slave or prisoner. Willing obedience is listening, attending and responding to that which we trust will give us peace. Brueggemann asserts that this call to obedience is rooted in baptism – “Baptism that renounces the old ways of death and embraces a new life,” and, “all our talking and listening is out of baptism and into baptism. We are a people that is every day summoned to die ‘to the vain glories of the world,’ and to be raised to new life”(p. 85-86).
Brueggemann then takes a look at two of the Ten Commandments (only for space/time constraints, NOT because they other eight don’t apply!). His treatment of Sabbath and coveting are wonderful, but rather than focus on his always impeccable scholarship, I want to focus on the grander theme of the Commandments as they relate to obedience. So many times people look at the Commandments as prohibitions, plain and simple. “THOU SHALT NOT.” They sound so authoritative, so stifling! When viewed that way, they certainly are. God becomes big brother. Obedience is an oppressive burden in such a mindset. But when we think of the Commandments as rules that bring order, peace and harmony to our relationships with God and one another, then obedience can become something we desire.
The Commandments create a community in which our priorities regarding the importance of divine and human things are well defined, where there is balance between work and rest, and where there is a culture of respect and honor between neighbors. We respect and honor our neighbor’s very lives, their spouses, property and reputations. We respect and honor our parents and our spouses. And because we not only HAVE neighbors, but ARE neighbors – OUR lives and property and reputations are respected and honored, and our spouses and children honor and respect US. We love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves(Matthew 22: 34-41). What freedom this obedience gives – the freedom for our neighbors thrive, and for us to thrive as well!
questions to ponder:
- What can I do to contain my greed so that I am less afraid/restless and can live more freely?
- How does serving my neighbor help me fight my greed?
- What are some guidelines that help us distinguish between obedience and bondage?
- Does my view of the Ten Commandments change when I see them as rules that create freedom instead of simply things I “can’t do”?
*Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, 1989.