January 17, 2009

What does it mean to be obedient?

As I’ve said in earlier blogs, one of the most salient of Christ’s teachings is that there are higher and lesser laws. The implication is that we cannot help but be obedient. The question we should ask ourselves is: To what shall we be obedient? After all, God once commanded that adulterers be stoned. Are we to obey that directive today?

It seems clear to me that the instructions written in the Old Testament were meant for a people who’d experienced little social order—a people who had emerged from slavery living a hand-to-mouth existence that could rise no higher than the law of the jungle. (If this is an unfamiliar concept, please take a look at some of my earlier references to higher and lesser laws). The point is: God wants us to be better than what is prescribed by the Ten Commandments. In fact, as our society becomes more enlightened, we will learn that there are yet higher laws of which we must be aware. For example, the necessity to properly care for our earth is a notion we have only recently come to understand. Yet, there are hints to its importance in Genesis, when God ordered Adam to, “nourish and replenish the earth.”

As an overlay to this construct is the idea that there are numerous claims to obedience. Take, for example, the following story set in feudal Japan.

The evil daimyo, Lord Aku, gazed across the northern border of his fiefdom at the rice paddies owned by his nemesis. For many years his samurai had fought against Lord Zen’s loyal army without success, but now he had a better, more diabolical, plan. Under the cover of darkness, he would enter the neighboring territory and capture the unarmed farmers who worked in the paddies. After a winter without food, he reckoned, the opposing warriors would be weak and unable to mount a proper defense. Under such circumstances he could launch another attack and make the fertile land his own.

When Lord Zen learned that the farmers of his fiefdom had been captured and led away, he immediately understood the implication of his enemy’s act. Without food, Lord Zen’s people would suffer terribly. The thought alarmed him and so he called his most trusted samurai—Kato, Sato, Nato and Fuji—to meet him at the castle. After sharing news of the nighttime attack, Lord Zen gave the following brief, but urgent,

“Go,” he said. “Gather up the rice—each available kernel—so that we may have food to last the winter.”

Now, this is what his men did.

Kato left the castle claiming under his breath, “I will gladly fight all enemies for my Lord, but this work is beneath me.” Nevertheless, he located a paddy of rice and, while complaining to anyone who might stop to listen, harvested grain by the handful. In just a few days, he gathered five koku of rice. Unfortunately, in a fit of rage he wrenched his back inventing a new obscene gesture and was unable to continue through the full season.

Sato went straightaway to the closest paddy and—so that he wouldn’t miss a single kernel—feverishly plucked them one-by-one from their stalks and gathered them into sacks. For days he worked, seldom stopping for sustenance or rest. By the time the harvest was over, he had gathered ten koku of rice. Sadly, Kato developed an inexplicable fear of tiny white objects and now resides at the Shady Rest Home for Retired Samurai, where he eats his sushi on whole wheat bread.

Nato felt an uneasiness about Lord Zen’s request and went to the nearest law library to locate the source of his discomfort. There he found an obscure local statute that prohibited samurai from working in fields. Professing a love for the law, he pledged obedience to it and returned home to await the end of the harvest. Nato now publishes a popular newsletter entitled: Know Your Employment Rights.

Fuji took a moment to contemplate his actions. He calculated the amount of rice needed to save his people and considered various ways to maximize the volume he might gather. Suddenly an idea came to him. Why not use my sword to cut down swaths of grain? By the end of the harvest, he had gathered over a thousand koku of rice. In recognition of his efforts, Fuji was offered a senior position at the Toyota Rickshaw Company, where he is now in charge of strategic planning.

Once the grain was safely stored, Lord Zen called for his samurai once again. With gratitude in his eyes, he told his loyal vassals that enough rice had been harvested to feed the people through a cold winter. Sure, they would need to eat more than their usual share of tofu—nevertheless, the people would live.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for your obedience.”

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