Evangelical Counsels: Obedience

Michael A. Hayes

The word evangelical has its root in the Greek, evangelion, meaning good news and as such is closely related to the Christian Gospel. Counsels in the Christian sense are not understood as commands of Jesus imposed on his followers, rather they are invitations, indeed they are a response to the invitation of the Spirit and they are linked to the call to perfection and the voluntary renunciation of material goods. This can be seen in Matthew?s account of the response of Jesus to the question of the rich young man who wanted to know what he should do to gain eternal life in addition to keeping the commandments: ?If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me? (Mt. 19.21). The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience have been traditionally understood as a radical response in practice to the invitation of Jesus ?to be perfect?.

The model for evangelical obedience in the Christian context is Jesus. Jesus? obedience can be seen in his complete and unyielding dedication to what he referred to as the Kingdom of God; ?Your kingdom come? (Mt. 6.13). Obedience in this sense is radical listening; a desire to be as attentive as possible to the word of God and a readiness to put that word into practice. The example of obedience that Jesus offers is his willingness to put himself completely at the service of the kingdom. And again in John?s gospel Jesus is clear, ?I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me? (6.38).

The word obedience itself comes from the Latin verb oboedire which means to listen, to submit, to obey. During the fourth and fifth centuries the Desert Fathers and Mothers saw obedience as a key component of the way to perfection. The Desert spirituality that arises from this period in Egypt emphasises rigorous self-examination in order to remove any hindrances, internal or external, that might distract the individual from focusing on God. Obedience to the Abba was seen as a key to the process of discerning the will of God. Anthony the Great is often referred to as the ?Father of Monks? in a collection of ?Sayings? from this period:

Someone asked Abba Anthony, ?What must one do in order to please God??

The old man replied, ?Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.? 1

The practice of Christian spiritual direction has its provenance in this period; the director?s role is to enable the individual to ?pay attention to? and discern the will of God in their life.

St Benedict wrote his Rule in the sixth century, and it has become the basic guide for thousands of Christians who are committed to the monastic movement. The Prologue to the Rule begins:

?Listen carefully, my son, to the master?s instructions, and tend to them with the ear of your heart. The advice from a father who loves you, welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labour of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience.?

Benedict is inviting the monk to listen not so much to his instructions but to Jesus Christ, the true Master. Obedience then is to listen to Christ anew. Benedict was under no illusion that to have a spiritual path that transforms the world is not a luxury; that is why he also refers to concrete features of life, to work, prayer, community, manual labour and art.

For when a living community, however small, reflects Jesus, it becomes a leaven for the world; this is what the evangelical counsel of obedience is, the radical listening anew to Christ; it is using ?the ear of your heart? to the word of God. This is good news!???

1??? The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translator ? Sister Benedicta Ward SLG Publisher ? Cistercian Publication, Michigan, 1975, p.7.