The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Nehemiah 8:2-4,5-6,8-10 + 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 + Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
January 27, 2013
“Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, which consisted of men, women, and those children old enough to understand.” [Nehemiah 8:2]
Laws (or rules, if you want to call them that), are placed on our shoulders by lots of different people: our boss at work, teachers at school, parents at home, politicians in our civil government, and… even our Church herself. All of them place laws on our shoulders. And we learn early in life that, to get along, to be part of the group, we have to “follow the rules.”
For example, if a student signs up for a class, he has to accept the teacher’s rules for all sorts of things: conduct in the classroom, a certain format for writing a paper, and participating in class discussion. Or to use another example: if a man accepts the call to be a priest, he accepts the obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours five times a day; he accepts the decision not to enter into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony; and he also accepts the Church’s law that says that priests cannot run for any sort of political office.
Other laws are broader in scope. Traffic laws, for example, affect anyone who lives, or drives, or even walks, in that area. If you’re going to drive, you learn that (unless perhaps you’re driving an emergency vehicle) when you pass a speed limit sign, you know that you either have to follow it, or face a punishment. Or to use a different example: those who earn income are taxed by the government. Every wage-earner in our nation (and our state) pays taxes in order to enjoy certain privileges that government is supposed to provide. Or, that wage-earner will suffer punishment.
In all these cases, a person has a choice. It’s as if he’s come to a fork in a road, and has to ask himself, “Do I want to be part of this group, or not? Do I want to go to the right, follow the rules, and avoid punishment; or do I want to go to the left, and break the rules, and risk punishment.”
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This isn’t the only sort of decision a person has to make, though. One of the more difficult decisions is set before a person when he’s given two different messages by two different groups. Let me give some examples. In the setting of school, students are taught both by parents, and teachers. It’s just a fact, that students learn best when parents reinforce, rather than contradict, what teachers tell their children (presuming that what teachers teach is true).
Or, to use an opposite example, if children see their parents breaking a law—whether a traffic law, or a law of the Church—then… children become confused, because they’re being taught two opposite things by two different sources of authority. It’s like the child suddenly finds himself at a fork in the road, where the law says he should walk in one direction, and his parents’ example says that he should walk in a different direction.
All too often, because children instinctively understand that their parents are their first teachers in life, the children will—very reasonably—say to themselves, “Why should we obey civil laws, or care about going to Church, when our parents have taught us that the Church and the State don’t deserve our obedience?”
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So there are two different types of “forks in the road” that we face in life: first, the decision between following a rule, or not following a rule; staying with the group, or breaking our relationship with the group.
The second fork in the road is harder to figure out: it’s when each fork of the road has a different authority standing down along its path, calling us down its road. This situation is harder to figure out, because both of the authorities—we thought—are supposed to be leading us in the same direction, But instead, we find them forcing us to break one relationship or the other, no matter which choice we make.
The secular culture that surrounds us has a very simple solution to this problem, by telling us that this isn’t a problem at all. Within this culture are countless voices telling us that what Christian culture calls a vice, is in fact a virtue! Here’s how you solve this problem: you tell every single person to blaze his own path; you teach every single person to be his own person, by deciding for himself or herself what is wrong for him or her. So, when two different authorities lay out two different paths, they’re really just presenting two options to be considered: one of them might be accepted, or they might both be rejected and a third path followed. There really are no such things as “authorities” here, just “voices” to be considered.
Now of course, if a five-year old child decides to follow “his own path”, the consequences are going to follow pretty quickly: he’s going to be dragged—kicking and screaming, if necessary—back along the wrong path until the right path is reached again. And the same consequences will be administered again and again to the child, until he begins to recognize his mother’s voice as authoritative: which is to say, until he conforms.
But what happens when the child is nineteen and attending college, hours away from his mother? Or maybe instead… attending bars next to the campus? If it’s only an authority that is outside of the child who is telling him which path to follow, then all the child has to do is distance himself from that voice, and he will no longer have to listen to a voice telling him he’s headed in the wrong direction.
On the other hand, if parents instill into their children an internal voice, then their children will carry that voice with them, no matter how far from home they might travel. Fortunately for parents, God has designed human nature with just this plan in mind, so that parents don’t have to nag their children, or constantly watch over their shoulders, or tether their children to a 25-mile radius from home. God’s design of human nature includes this… something called a “conscience”.
The human conscience is not a moral Baskin-Robbins. Nor is it morality’s version of Cox cable, where you can keep punching the remote until you hear what you want. There is only one flavor, one channel, one voice that speaks within the human conscience, and that is the Word of God: the voice of God the Son. It’s true, the human conscience can be ignored, it can be confused, and it can be drowned out by other voices. But it cannot be extinguished.
Maybe this analogy would be better: the human conscience is like a radio receiver. Just as Jesus says the Way to Heaven is a narrow path, we can imagine that God broadcasts His voice on a very specific, very narrow frequency. You have to tune your conscience very carefully and specifically to find God’s voice, but once you do, God speaks on a crystal-clear channel, with a signal that has higher definition than anything this world is broadcasting. And the message has far more meaning, and brings far greater peace into our lives.