The Dilemma of Obedience – 181209

Exodus 19:3-6; Romans 1:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12

A dilemma is often about making a choice between one thing and another. When I was at University nearly four decades ago, I studied Shakespearean tragedies and comedies as part of an English major. In these courses, I became familiar with the life dilemmas the major characters faced. The words of Hamlet, for instance, are still imprinted in my memory, about the choice one makes to embrace life with all its troubles or submit to death and its release …

To be or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them.

Hamlet’s dilemma is about obedience to this own instincts, the mother who gives up her child does it in obedience to her love for the child. It is focused on the other, not on self.

The wise men also face a dilemma – a choice between two loyalties – one to a human king and another to the King of Kings.

The wise men (magi, priests, kings – themselves from the East – maybe Persia) follow a star after receiving an understanding that God was coming to town in the form of a child.

They had come to Jerusalem to find out where this child king or the Christ/Messiah (verse) was born and to bring him gifts and worship him.

In Jerusalem they crossed paths with the powerful and maniacal King Herod.

It would have been a courtesy for foreign dignitaries to pay obeisance or respect to Herod when they arrived in his kingdom. However, because he was a vicious, deceitful and jealous leader – it was also a very diplomatic move on their part.

After all, history reports Herod’s murderous reputation.

We know the Herold ‘The Great’ executed members of his own family including his wife, a brother-in-law and three of his sons.

His paranoia led to the murder of many others and he was reputed to have a bodyguard of 2000 soldiers. He would have no problem in murdering all the boys – 2 years and younger – in the vicinity of Bethlehem to get to the Messiah who was a possible threat to his throne as reported in verses 14-18 of this chapter in Matthew.

Once the Wise Men came to Jerusalem, Herod called them into his presence, but secretly (which must have raised their suspicions of his plan).

He told them ‘go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find them, report to me, so I may go and worship him’.

The Wise Men left and again followed the star to a place (house as it is written in Matthew’s gospel) in Bethlehem.

After worshipping the Christ Child and distributing their gifts of Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold, they left for their homelands being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and indeed to exit Israel via another route.

We have no evidence that any of those Wise Men were ‘Yahweh’ disciples or God followers.

The Wise Men were ‘commanded’ by Herod and ‘warned’ by God. Who to obey?

In a Shakespearean way they may have looked at their dilemma as ‘to obey or not to obey – that is the question.’

The dilemma that faced the Wise Men often face us as people of faith today.

What should we do with a dilemma to obey either God or human beings when the dilemma before them contradicts one another?

Go with the highest authority even if it means civil disobedience?

This is what the Wise Men chose to do. It’s what Peter and Paul, and Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many others did. It’s what got Daniel thrown into the Lion’s Den and Moses kicked out of Pharaoh’s Court.

It’s what Jesus was alluding to when he says in Matthew 22:21 ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s.’

Martin Luther King Jnr, from gaol, noted, ‘one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’.

He agreed with St. Augustine in the 9th century, who claimed that an unjust law is no law at all.

The Uniting Church itself recognises that that in we in two countries, a secular national with secular leaders to support and obey.

But we also live in a spiritual society with an omnipotent King whose authority if Supreme. (Psalm 2:10-11).

The UCA gives the right to ministers to stand up in matters of political resistance or civil disobedience in Paragraph 6.2 of the Code of Ethics and Ministry Practice.

It acknowledges the will of a higher authority when it runs counter to secular rules and actions.

The Wise Men did not obey Herold but obeyed God. This was the resolution of their dilemma – even though it put them personally at great risk from the vicious King Herold.

When we are faced with the dilemma of obeying God or obeying human kind in issues around us, may we too discern carefully so we too, maybe known as Wise women and men in the eyes of God and experience a resolution that brings us an inner ‘peace which passes all understandings’. Amen.


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