Laity on the Line

20 Jan

Today’s first reading at Mass, from 1 Samuel 24, provides us some important biblical insights as to how we are to treat our religious leaders. King Saul and his henchmen are hunting down David and his band of followers. Saul has fallen out of favor with the Lord and has unleashed a demonic quest to kill David. Just two chapters earlier, Saul put to death 85 priests simply because they gave comfort and assistance to David!

For his part, David has been a loyal subject. His defeat of Goliath and other military exploits, however, have only fueled Saul’s envy and malice. King Saul continues his relentless pursuit of David amidst rugged terrain.

In this scene, Saul wanders into a cave to “ease nature” (1 Sam. 24:4). David and his men, unbeknownst to Saul, happen to be hiding in another part of the cave. Here is David’s chance to bring down the wicked king who is doing everything in his power to kill him. David sneaks over to where Saul is and cuts off the end of Saul’s mantle, presumably as proof that he did have the opportunity to kill Saul if he had so chosen. But David quickly regrets doing that, and proceeds to give not only his followers, but all of us, some important lessons.

First, David refuses to harm Saul. Why? Because Saul is the “Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:7) and a father to him.

Second, David restrains his men and won’t permit them to harm Saul. This was a matter of principle, not tactics. And this loyalty isn’t merely a ploy to gain others’ esteem. When David later hears of Saul’s demise, he rends his garments, mourns, weeps, and fasts for his fallen king, and he even puts to death the young Amelekite man who gave the final death blow to Saul because he “desecrated the Lord’s anointed” (2 Sam 1:14-16).

Third, David addresses King Saul in a manner that reflects the respect owed to “the Lord’s anointed.” He calls him “my lord the king” (1 Sam. 24:9) and later as his father (1 Sam. 24:11). When he gets Saul’s attention, he bows with his face to the earth and shows him reverence. Saul’s manifest unworthiness does not deter David from showing honor to his lawful king.

Fourth, David speaks directly to the king, stating his case clearly and courageously. He is able to point to his impeccable record of loyalty to Saul as he implores him not to listen to those who seek his life. In the end, he places his trust in the Lord to judge the matter rightly, but reiterates that he will not raise his hand against Saul.

David’s words pierce Saul, who calls David his son and acknowledges that David is more righteous than he. Saul’s repentance is short-lived, and shortly thereafter he dies at the hands of the Philistines. David becomes the great king, from whose line would come the Savior of the world.

Throughout the Bible there are many other important lessons on how to relate to those in authority, especially during times of crisis. From the example of Noah’s faithful sons, who covered their father’s nakedness (Gen. 9:23), to our Lord’s pithy command to do as the Pharisees and scribes say but not as they do (Mt. 23:1-3), a clear picture develops. This picture is reflected in the constant teaching of the Church, including in our time the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Code of Canon Law.

The “anatomy” of a godly response to Church authority requires not only backbone but also heart–in other words, strength and tenderness rooted in the truth. This is charity in action, which the Catechism calls “the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil, and the violence which under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse” (no. 1889).

I understand that all this might sound good in theory, but what about Bishop So-and-So? What about my pastor, who allows–or even mandates–that X, Y, or Z go on in our parish? I can’t address here all the difficulties that arise on the local level, but I would like to present a few general principles.

Take personal responsibility. We are responsible for doing our part to build up the Church. Too often I’ve heard people lament at length about the deficiencies of local Church leaders, as though everything rides on them. But the fact is, our Baptism gives us the serious right and duty to be “apostles” in accordance with our own state in life. We can’t control the actions of others, but we surely can take it upon ourselves to strive to become saints. At the judgment, we will not be asked about our bishop or pastor, but we will be accountable for what we did with our own talents.

Offer it up. Difficulties and suffering within the Church can be the very stuff of our redemption. Do we believe that? Are we going to embrace these crosses (even as we legitimately and appropriately address our concerns), or are we going to respond with the “violence” that only makes things worse? Suffering of all kinds is a given in life; we can choose whether in our case it will be redemptive or wasted.

Remember the command to honor our fathers. Since bishops and pastors are our spiritual fathers, we are commanded to honor them as such by the Fourth Commandment. The Roman Catechism, issued after the Council of Trent, taught that “Christ the Lord commands obedience even to wicked pastors.” But the Fourth Commandment is a “thou shall” rather than a “thou shall not” commandment. It does not tell us merely to avoid negative behaviors, but rather encourages a healthy, positive loyalty and reverence toward our parents and also to our spiritual fathers.

Live the vision. We should pray for an increase of faith, that we might see in our bishops and priests, despite their human frailty and any perceived shortcomings, “the Lord’s anointed.” If we do that, we’re well on our way toward imitating the example of David, who was, to his eternal credit, a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).

The foregoing is taken from an article that I wrote in 2006.

2 Responses to “Laity on the Line”

  1. Jane Smith Petry January 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    This is very timely as I strive to be a David. Watching our Bishops apparent disregard for the fact that the Girl Scouts (all councils) partner with Planned Parenthood is challenging for me as I work to expose the evil org. that they have become. Saving this to read and reread. Thank you Leon and God Bless the work that you do.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Catechesis on the Fourth Commandment « - November 19, 2012

    […] and respect all who hold positions of lawful authority.  Examples would include our bishop and pastor as our spiritual fathers, as well as our secular leaders. Only God’s authority is absolute, but […]

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