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Familial obedience

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Gospel Commentary Dec. 26, lk 2:41-52

After being found in the Temple, the 12-year-old Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, “and was obedient to them.” This short phrase toward the end of today’s Gospel is a great mystery. He was obedient to them. God was obedient to man. This is a consequence of the mystery of the Incarnation. God truly became man, being born into a human family. Mary was truly his mother in every sense, and Joseph was his legal father. He was subject to their authority over him just as every child is subject to the authority of his or her parents. He obeyed the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”

At the same time, today’s Gospel shows us that Mary and Joseph’s authority over Jesus was not absolute. When they find the child Jesus in the Temple, Mary asks him why he stayed behind, considering the great amount of anxiety it had caused them. He answered, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Christ was obedient to Joseph and Mary, and at the same time he was obedient to one greater than they, his true Father, God the Father. This obedience is something that lies at the heart of our redemption. As St. Paul puts it, “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). In fact, Jesus’ three days of being lost from Mary and Joseph already foreshadow those three days he would be absent from his disciples between Good Friday and Easter Sunday — all in obedience to his Father.

Of course, the Holy Family is unique. No other family can claim that their child is God. Yet there is a similar dynamic that exists in every parent-child relationship. The child is subject to the authority of his or her parents, and yet that authority is not absolute because the child ultimately belongs to God and is destined for God. Pope Benedict XVI expressed this dynamic beautifully in his first volume of “Jesus of Nazareth”: “No human being ‘belongs’ to another in the way that a thing does. Children are not their parents’ ‘property’; spouses are not each other’s ‘property.’ Yet they do ‘belong’ to each other in a much deeper way than, for example, a piece of wood or a plot of land, or whatever else we call ‘property.’ “Children ‘belong’ to their parents, yet they are free creatures of God in their own right, each with his own calling and his own newness and uniqueness before God. They belong to each other, not as property, but in mutual responsibility. They belong to each other precisely by accepting one another’s freedom and by supporting one another in love and knowledge — and in this communion they are simultaneously free and one for all eternity.”

One thing this means is that obedience to God always takes precedence over obedience to parents. We must obey God rather than men. If parents ask their child directly to do something that is objectively sinful, the child should disobey his parents in that case. Or sadly, sometimes a child has an authentic vocation to religious life, but parents might stand in the way. Parents often have their own hopes and dreams for their children, and these might differ from God’s plans. Sometimes it is a child’s parents who stubbornly cling to their own plans, making it difficult for the young person who is open to God’s call. This was the case for St. Thomas Aquinas. His parents were set on him becoming a Benedictine monk for essentially political reasons. Their expectation was that he would join the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino and someday become abbot. This would maintain the family’s powerful connection with the abbey. God, however, was calling the young Thomas to join the Dominicans. When Thomas expressed this to his parents, they locked him up in a tower to prevent it from happening. He eventually escaped and became a Dominican friar.

Parents should teach their children obedience, and they have the right to expect it from their children. But their goal in teaching obedience should not merely be so that their children become helpful servants who get the chores done (though that is nice), nor that they become conformed to their parents’ will in every way. It is ultimately to teach them to be obedient to God above all, their lives aimed at God, their freedom aimed at responding to God’s call.

Fr. Oetjen is studying canon law at Catholic University in Washington, with residence at St. Agnes Church in Arlington. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021