Today’s first reading is an excerpt from a longer narrative in the Acts of the Apostles. Prior to the events in today’s reading, the apostles had been arrested and imprisoned for preaching about the resurrection of Jesus. While in prison, an angel set them free and instructed them to preach publicly about the new life offered to those who accept baptism into the death of Jesus. They obeyed the command of the angel. Their public proclamation of the Gospel message brought them to a second trial before the religious leadership in Jerusalem; part of that second trial is recounted in today’s reading.
When scolded for disobeying the commands of the religious leaders, the apostles responded, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) In the context of this narrative, the apostles’ response is easy to understand. The religious leadership had commanded them to stop preaching about Jesus. God, through the mediatorship of an angel, had commanded them to continue preaching about Jesus’ resurrection. The apostles had a choice to make; they chose to obey God rather than the religious leaders.
We, too, are obliged to obey God. When there is a conflict between obeying God’s commands and human commands, we are to obey God’s commands even when it leads to undesirable consequences such as the apostles faced in today’s first reading. We should be careful, however, when we attempt to apply the apostles’ words to ourselves. While it is sometimes difficult to obey God, it is often more difficult to discern what it means to obey God. Civil wars, religious wars, interpersonal conflicts, and all manner of atrocities have been committed in the name of serving God. Before we repeat blithely the apostles’ words, we are obliged to know clearly what God wants and how we are to accomplish God’s will. Fortunately, we have help in this process of discernment.
The apostles had witnessed Jesus’ interactions with a wide spectrum of people. During his ministry, he was challenged by religious leaders, followed by curious on-lookers, and petitioned by the needy and suffering. After their faith grew to maturity, the apostles were able both to believe in Jesus and to imitate him. When the apostles were threatened by fearful religious leaders, they proclaimed the Gospel fearlessly. When they saw the spiritual hunger of the people in the Temple area, they preached peace and reconciliation with God. When they were approached by the marginalized, they responded with deep compassion.
In the world of modern corporate governance, the apostles’ experiences with Jesus during his ministry might be called “case studies.” Those experiences were exemplars that could be applied to a wide variety of situations. After Jesus’ death, the apostles applied Jesus’ lessons when they worked to accomplish his command to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) When we imitate Jesus’ faithfulness and compassion, we can respond appropriately to the varied challenges and opportunities that arise in our lives.
For example, what is the appropriate response to your adult children who quit going to church, dress all your grandchildren in the same shade of grey, refer to them by number rather than name, and refuse to have them baptized? Erroneous interpretations of the apostles’ words, “We must obey God rather than men” might lead you to disown your children, or to fret about the consequences of their actions, or to wish for a reemergence of the Inquisition. When Jesus encountered opposition or disappointment in his ministry, he remained faithful to God and allowed other people to make choices freely.
What is the appropriate response to neighbors or civil governments which behave in ways that you find irritating or reprehensible? Erroneous interpretations of the apostles’ words, “We must obey God rather than men” might lead you to threaten those people with harsh judgments and divine retribution. When Jesus encountered sinners, he encouraged them to repent; when sinners repented, he welcomed them into his group of disciples.
The apostles had no advantage over us when they tried to obey God’s commands rather than human commands. We have Jesus’ actions and words recorded in the Scriptures. We encounter him in the Eucharist and other Sacraments. We have the opportunity to serve him by serving the poor. We are called to the vocation to continue his work of reconciliation. We know that obeying God is not accomplished by being judgmental, demanding, coercive, or reproachful.
The apostles obeyed God by giving their lives for the betterment of the world. We obey God when we imitate the apostles by giving witness to the resurrection of Jesus and by allowing others to witness Jesus’ teachings expressed in our actions.