‘Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice.’ This Bible verse is one that is used frequently these days. When Saul the king preferred sacrifice over obedience, Prophet Samuel corrected him by saying that it is the other way round. “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22).
So it is clear. Obedience is superior to sacrifice. An act becomes sin when it contains an element of disobedience to the commandments of God. As for Saul, God’s instructions were clear; that he should destroy all the Amalekites and all their belongings. But Saul had better ideas. Why should they be destroyed? After all, no one is going to benefit from it. Instead why can’t they be kept alive so that later they can be offered as sacrifice to the God who gave them an easy victory over Amalekites? Samuels’ clarification was in this background.
The irony is that today this verse is widely misquoted, misused and misinterpreted. So it has become necessary to know what obedience means. Wherever obedience is mentioned in the Bible it is in relation to obedience to the commandments of God or obedience to others for the sake of God.
Naturally a question arises here. Are we duty bound to obey all orders of the authorities? The Catholic Church answers this question in relation to obedience due to parents. ‘But if a child is convinced in conscience that it would be morally wrong to obey a particular order, he must not do so’ (CCC 2217).
It means that obedience is not blindly doing everything the parents say. Obedience should be the second step, first being discernment. Children are bound to obey only those things that are morally right. If an alcoholic father serves his son with liquor and compels him to drink, Christian morality demands that the son should not obey his father. If impious parents tell their children not to pray, Christian morality does not compel them to obey their parents.
As far as obedience to authorities is concerned Christians are bound to fully obey the authorities in all things that are morally right. When the authorities issue orders against morality or public good we are not expected to obey it. When a certain order of the civil authority compels us to take part or actively connive in a sinful act, it is not our duty to obey such orders.
For example many countries have legalized certain acts that are patently against divine law. Often the governments actively promote or support such things. What should be the stand of Christians who are compelled to cooperate with such a sinful act? They have to make a choice. Obey God who commanded them to do good or obey the authorities who order them to do evil! Our duty ends where civil law goes against divine law. Our God wants us to disobey such laws and accept the sufferings that it brings rather than enjoying the fruits of sin served with the coating of legal permission.
The apostles have given us a worthy model to emulate. When the authorities in Jerusalem told them not to preach in the name of Jesus Christ, Peter and John told them. “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge (Acts 4:19). This happened twice. When the high priest and his followers put the apostles on trial, their demand was the same, that the apostles should not preach in the name of Jesus Christ! And the reply was given by all the apostles together. “We must obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29)
If you still doubt that spiritual leaders could go wrong, history teaches us the opposite. Bishops, Patriarchs and even Popes subscribed to heresies and erroneous teachings on many occasions. They in turn instructed their flock to follow them. But the Church never hesitated to correct them later. Even during the heyday of heresies, the true faithful stuck to the true magisterium of the Church.
The point to be noted is that neither God nor the Church demands blind obedience from us. Our duty to obey ceases when we are told to do things that are against accepted Christian moral standards and Christian faith. Then a question will naturally arise. What should be our stand when we are convinced of the erroneous nature of the instructions or teachings of our superior? Catechism of the Catholic Church exhorts the faithful to respectfully disagree with their pastors and superiors in such instances (cf CCC 907). In other words the Church expects us to correct the authorities when their teachings or opinions tend to deviate from faith and morality.
We have seen hundreds of priests and nuns who, despite their reservations, accepted something that was useless and harmful to their body and mind, just for the sake of obedience. That too when the civil authorities gave them the opportunity to skip it! If you insist that the faithful should blindly follow what their pastors say, the Catholics in many dioceses – especially in Europe- will have to support an abominable union between two persons of the same sex in place of the sacred institution of marriage, because their bishops are for it!
We have no doubt that obedience is superior to sacrifice, but with a rider! Obedience should be to God. May all those who misuse this sacred verse to demand unquestioned obedience from others realize that ultimate obedience is to God and God alone. May those who quote this verse as an excuse to obey everything their superiors say, also be enlightened about this cardinal principle of obedience that obedience means only one thing and that is obeying what God commanded.