But thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin, you have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted.
Romans 6: 27
And the servant who has known the desire of the master yet has not prepared or done anything in accordance with his desire will be flogged. But the one who does not know yet does things deserving of a whipping will be flogged only lightly. Much will be required of the person to whom much has been given. More will be demanded of the person to whom much has been entrusted.
Luke 12: 47-8
Recently I found myself thinking about why it is that while I have plenty of responsibility to face in terms of the fidelity of my own life, my consciousness so frequently becomes diverted by my judging of and reaction to others. As I read the words of Jesus to his disciples today, I am reminded of the teaching of St. Benedict concerning the role of the abbot in the monastery. I think that the “temptation” to obsess over the faults of others and to judge them are ways of evading both our responsibility for ourselves and our true responsibility to and for others.
It is often said that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Yet, in today’s gospel Jesus tells us that “more will be demanded of the person to whom much has been entrusted.” It is not the same thing to act badly when we don’t know what we are doing as to deliberately flout what we know to be required of us. A few weeks ago, this passage came to my mind as I was hearing the word proclaimed at mass. At the moment of judgment, I will be required to face the disparity in my life between what I have been given and how I have lived, between the responsibilities with which I have been entrusted and the degree to which I have met them.
In the translation of today’s passage from Romans, it is striking to hear of becoming “obedient from the heart.” This translation offers a striking insight into Paul’s theology of grace and law. Usually when we think of the law and its demands, that is what God asks of us and how God calls on us to live, we think of an obedience of the will. To “become obedient from the heart,” however, is to have appropriated within ourselves the “teaching to which you were entrusted.” It is to know by experience and by heart the way of peace and love, the way of true joy in life. Now at different moments of life, we recognize this to varying degrees. There are moments when I feel overcome by joy and gratitude for the gift of creation and my life as part of it, when I realize that my great responsibility in life is to be faithful to the call which I am. These are moments not only of knowing my place in the world but in rejoicing in it in awe, appreciation, and gratitude. This, I suspect, is what Paul means by being “obedient from the heart.”
Yet, and this is perhaps even more amazing, so much of the time I live as if I knew nothing of this. I live in forgetfulness of the truth of things, of the world and of my place in it. I live an anxious form of life that lives only to seek momentary diversion and relief from the anxiety. These are the moments when I am most apt to be upset with and judgmental of others. From that perspective, they are the cause of my restlessness and anxiety. They are the impediments to the peace and fulfillment that I seek. My focus of attention is diverted to the faults of others so that I can evade my own failure of responsibility.
The phrase “obedient from the heart” helps me to understand that at those many times when I am being driven by my own anxiety, I am not living in and from my own heart. Instead of setting my own heart straight, I falsely believe that the way to relieve my anxiety is to set the world straight by setting others straight. If I am honest, I would need to see that arrogance and judgmentalism are signs of my own self-alienation. The greater the distance from my own heart, the greater my impatience with others.
When we live from our hearts and are trying to practice our own obedience of heart, we have plenty to concentrate on. We don’t have the time or the energy to spend our lives trying to fix the deficiencies of others. This is what Jesus is teaching when he tells us to “first take the beam out of our own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). When being judgmental toward others, I am evading responsibility for what I know is being asked of me. In daily practice, this can mean that when I find myself obsessing over another’s faults, it is time to “check in” with myself and to recognize how distant I have become from my own heart. I have no idea what the other knows and does not know of God’s love and call. But, I do know what I know, and that is to be my concern. As I ‘know the desire of the master,” in my regard, living that desire faithfully from my heart is my own first order of business.
In speaking to his disciples, Jesus also tells them that “More will be demanded of the one to whom much has been entrusted.” Being hyper-critical and judgmental of others is also a strategy we employ to evade our true responsibility for those who are entrusted to us. St. Benedict in speaking of the role of the abbot in the monastery says that “he who has undertaken the government of souls must prepare himself for rendering an account. And however great the number of brethren he knows he has under his care, let him recognize for certain that he will have to account to the Lord for all their souls in the day of judgment and without doubt for his own soul in addition.” Obviously this cannot mean that the abbot takes over responsibility for each monk’s soul. It does mean, however, that the state of the souls of those who are in any way entrusted to us are of concern to us. Benedict says that the abbot will be called to give an account of those souls entrusted to him on the day of judgment.
The nature of that account, I suspect, will be whether or not we have done what we could for the good of those entrusted to us. The question will not be whether or not we “saved” the others, but rather how willing were we to engage the other for her or his own good. To what degree did I meet my responsibility to summon the other to fidelity to her or his own deeper truth, her or his own call to “become obedient from the heart.” We tend not to speak so much these days about the state or health of our souls. Although terminology is not all that important, the danger we face by lacking a way of speaking about what is most sacred in us is that we lose consciousness of our responsibility to each other for fidelity to our deeper life. One of the great dangers of our time is that our measure of what is considered a good practice of authority can be the degree of satisfaction and gratification experienced by those entrusted to an authority. A good leader is one who makes everyone happy! Today we are reminded that if others are entrusted to us, then even more is asked of us by God. We are not asked to do more than we can, but we are called to do what we can.
To be a servant of the deeper life of others will always require first our attention to our own call. Benedict writes: “And so, always duly fearful of the Chief Pastor’s future examination into the state of the sheep entrusted to him, while careful on others’ account he becomes solicitous on his own; and while by his admonitions he affords correction to others, he is also himself freed from his faults.” When others are entrusted to us, there is no separation between attention to our own soul and to theirs. Our being “careful on others’ account” is to be solicitous on our own. For many years, I served a role a director of formation for young people considering the religious life. To be engaged in their discernment of their life call was a constant challenge to my own call. To attempt to be in service to their formation meant, for me, to be constantly coming face to face with my own need to be formed and reformed. Every time I was asked to help them remove the speck in their eye, I would experience the beam in my own.
To become “obedient from the heart” to the love and call of God within us is a lifelong process. We must never, for any reason whatsoever, abandon our presence to our own heart, lest we begin to manipulate others and the world in accord with our own illusions. Yet, we must also accept with gratitude the ways in which, at varying times and in differing ways, others are entrusted to us. We are never to take that responsibility, however, as a license to sit in judgment on others from a distance. Rather we are to be willing to come close to them, to let go of our own self-preoccupation by engaging them in service to their truth and their call. Our responsibility to others lies in our ability to respond to them, to remind them in how we care for them that they, as we ourselves, are to tend to their souls, that their hearts are, day by day, to be formed in obedience to God’s way and will for them.
The abbot ought always to remember what he is, to remember what he is styled and to know that to whom more is committed from him is more required; and let him know how difficult and arduous a matter he has undertaken, namely, to govern souls and to adapt himself to many dispositions. One with gentleness, another with rebukes, another with persuasion, so let him, according to the character and intelligence of each, mould and adapt himself, that not only may no injury accrue to the flock entrusted to him, but that he may actually have occasion to rejoice in the increase of his flock’s welfare.
Above all, let him not be too solicitous about things transitory, things earthly, things perishable, closing his eyes to, or too little weighing the salvation of, the souls committed to his care; but let him always have in mind that because he has undertaken to govern souls, he must one day render an account of them.
And that he may not complain of having too little worldly substance, as may hap, let him remember the Scripture: “First seek the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” And again: “Nothing is wanting to them that fear Him.” And let him know that he who has undertaken the government of souls must prepare himself for rendering an account. And however great the number of brethren he knows he has under his care, let him recognize for certain that he will have to account to the Lord for all their souls in the day of judgment and without doubt for his own soul in addition. And so, always duly fearful of the Chief Pastor’s future examination into the state of the sheep entrusted to him, while careful on others’ account he becomes solicitous on his own; and while by his admonitions he affords correction to others, he is also himself freed from his faults.
Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 2