Sermon: The unfashionable virtue of obedience

Sermon for Western Heights Uniting Church
16th of February, 2020

Matthew 5:21-37

‘Obedience’ isn’t seen as a virtue in the 21st century. This could be because the 20th century saw too much of it. After World War Two, trials of Nazis were held at Nuremberg. Those on trial usually admitted that they had carried out the crimes with which they were charged, but argued that they were just following orders. ‘Just following orders’ is now known as the ‘Nuremberg defence’. It was also later used by Adolf Eichmann when he was tried in Israel. He said,‘I cannot recognize the verdict of guilty … At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate. Obedience is commended as a virtue.’ The judges rejected this defence, both at Nuremberg and at the trial of Eichmann. They held that ‘just following orders’ doesn’t excuse someone from breaking international law.

Fascinated by Eichmann’s trial, psychologist Stanley Milgram studied obedience at Yale University. His study, of which you may have heard, told subjects that they were administering increasingly dangerous electric shocks to a volunteer in another room. There was no volunteer, only another experimenter. But as the experiment went on a tape would be played in which ‘the volunteer’ grew more distraught. After a few shocks, they would pound on the wall and complain about a heart condition. Eventually they would go quiet. In Milgram’s first experiment 26 out of the 40 participants administered the final, deadly, shock. They all expressed concern at least once, but when the researcher in a white lab coat ordered them to continue, they did. Like the Nazis, they obeyed their orders.

Milgram’s study was conducted in the sixties, and it’s subsequently been found that the results weren’t so simple. The subjects were psychology students at Yale; fairly cluey people. Those who said that they saw through the experiment, and were sure that no volunteer was really being shocked, were more likely to obey the experimenter. Those who believed there was a real person being hurt were two and a half times more likely to refuse to administer further shocks, no matter what the experimenter ordered. But between the Nazis and Milgram we can see why ‘obedience’ has a somewhat spotty reputation in the modern world.

What about when the person we’re meant to obey is Jesus? Are we expected to obediently live out the Sermon on the Mount?

For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the law. Matthew gives us five blocks of Jesus’ teaching, paralleling the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is the first. We’re not told which mountain Jesus went up to teach; it’s just described as ‘the’ mountain. Like Mount Sinai, where Moses received the commandments, it’s the place of revelation.

Because for Matthew Jesus is the great Teacher, teaching is part of the great commission: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:19-20). Disciples are made by teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, and the church is formed from those obedient people.

This definition of what it means to be a disciple, one who obeys Jesus’s commends, is frightening. At one point in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matt 5:48). As we hear today, this perfection includes not being angry with siblings (Matt 5:22); not looking at anyone with lust (Matt 5:28); men not divorcing their wives (Matt 5:32); and not making any oaths (Matt 5:34). According to Jesus’ teaching, ‘if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire’. (Matt 5:22) I’m sure I’m not the only person who will be in serious trouble if Jesus means this literally. Does Jesus really expect us to be perfect, as God is perfect? Are we really meant to obey?

Quick side-note about the section on divorce: Jesus was teaching in a world in which women had few rights. Women weren’t able to give their husbands certificates for divorce, but a husband could divorce his wife for almost any reason. ‘Even if she spoiled a dish for him’ said one teacher, and ‘Even if he found another more beautiful that she’, said another.[1] Jesus’ command against divorce would have protected wives from being discarded in a world in which single women couldn’t support themselves. We, living in a much more equal world in which women don’t need to be married to survive, have recognised that divorce can be healthy, and in the Uniting Church we believe that allowing divorce is consistent with Jesus’ teachings. End of digression.

Back to the question: are we really meant to obey these commands? One answer, which we might call the extreme ‘Roman Catholic’ view, is that the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are given to a special class of Christians, those who live detached from the secular world – monks and nuns; priests and brothers. Without the need to provide for their families or succeed in worldly life, they can live out Jesus’ commands in lives of voluntary poverty and pacifism. Ordinary Christians aren’t expected to do so.

Another answer, maybe the extreme ‘Protestant’ view, is that no one can be expected to live up to Jesus’ demands. We’re not expected to obey these laws; and the very impossibility of doing so turns us to God and teaches us the necessity of grace. I’m currently reading a new biography of Martin Luther and I’ve been reminded that Luther said that humans are always drawn towards Satan and so we can never choose to be good.[2]

I don’t think either answer is right. I don’t think Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount just for special Christians, or to make us despair of living righteous lives. We know that he was preaching in the hearing of the crowds, and that when he finished ‘the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes’. (Matt 7:28-29) But Jesus is talking particularly to his disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to those who are already following Jesus; those who are already in relationship with the God who is ‘perfect’ – meaning faithful, loving, and merciful. To the people who haven’t received the vision of Jesus’ God, the idea of living in the sort of compassionate, vulnerable, ‘perfect’ way that Jesus describes here is foolishness. But those who love God can live out lives of love.

Should we try to obey Jesus’ commands, or just ask to have the sort of loving, trusting relationship with God from which living a perfect life will follow? Should I try not to call my Christian siblings ‘you fool,’ or just hope that one day I will be so close to God that I won’t even be tempted to insult them?

I’d like you to smile. Imagine that I am about to take your photo, and put on a pleasant smile. An analysis of psychological studies conducted over the past fifty years have found that ‘smiling makes people feel happier, scowling makes them feel angrier, and frowning makes them feel sadder’. Of course we cannot be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. But every time we try to be better, every time we could call another Christian, ‘You fool’, or objectify someone by looking at them with lust in our hearts, and yet we don’t – we come closer to being the people God created us to be. Trying to obey Jesus’ commands, even knowing that we are going to fail, will, helps us to more truly be Jesus’ disciples.

Are you still smiling? Did you know that children smile about four hundred times a day, while happy adults usually only manage forty to fifty smiles?As we try to truly follow Jesus, to live out the life described in the Sermon on the Mount, let’s smile. God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses, and we have chosen life. That’s something to smile about. Amen.

[1] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington,  The Gospel of Mark, p. 296.

[2] Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, p. 287.

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