Here is our third paradox of story: Freedom is discovered in obedience.
This is a difficult concept especially for us North Americans. We are brought up to be fiercely independent, never quite resolving the deep tension between intimacy and freedom. Our ideal model is the Marlboro Man (popular several years ago, but you get the idea). No ties, no strings, no commitments. Hang loose. Be free. But in Jewish lore freedom is found precisely in obedience. Any other position is absurd. And perhaps the two words “absurd” and “obedience” give us the clue as to what they mean. “Absurd” comes from the Latin meaning “without sound”, that is, the words say nothing, they are without sound or meaning to us. And this is our attitude in reference to certain commands or demands. But the word “obedience” comes from the Latin meaning “to listen thoroughly” and suggests that if we only would, we might hear something more than no sound. In other words, for the Jewish mind, it is always a question of freedom to, rather than, as for us, freedom from. To be under God’s law, to “listen thoroughly” to it, leads one to a stance that others might consider “absurd”, but only because they hear nothing of the divine voice. To be truly free is to be obedient to God’s law. The 613 Jewish commandments of the Law are not seen or “heard” as restrictions but as ways of being free to be God’s people. Obedience is liberating.
Dama ben Nethina, although a pagan, is a hero to the Jewish people because he was obedient to the Law. In this case, to the law of honoring one’s father and mother (and he was rewarded). Here’s the story.
Dama ben Nethina was head of the local city council. One day his mother got angry with him and hit him with her shoe in the presence of the whole council. The shoe dropped out of her hand. But Dama picked it up and returned it to his mother to save her the trouble of bending down.
Dama never sat upon the stone on which his father used to sit. When his father died, he revered that stone almost as an object of worship.
It happened one time that the jasper stone of the high priest’s breastplate was lost. The jasper represented the tribe of Benjamin. Inquiries were made to locate someone who owned a jasper. It was learned that Dama ben Nethina was the owner of just such a precious stone. So the sages of Israel went to Dama and they reached an agreement with him that they would buy the jasper for one hundred denarii. But when Dama went back to fetch the stone he discovered that his father was sleeping on the little chest in which the jasper was kept. And Dama refused to wake up his father on that account. The sages now offered him one thousand denarii, but Dama did not wake his father.
Later when his father did awake, Dama brought the stone to the sages. They wanted to pay him the latter price of one thousand denarii but he said to them, “How could I sell you the honor I owe my father?” Instead he sold them the jasper for the price on which they had first agreed, one hundred denarii.
To make sure that we got the point that real freedom is discovered in obedience, there is a postscript to this story. It says that on that very night Dama’s cow gave birth to a red calf. Once, when the Israelites were in need of a red heifer for the purification ritual, they bought the red heifer from Dama and paid him its weight in gold.
God rewards obedience. The Psalmist (Psalm 119) tells us there is a reward for obedience. The reference is not primarily to future rewards which we shall receive at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10), but to rewards we receive here and now. One day we must all appear before the Lord to be rewarded, or to suffer loss, according to the way we have lived and labored for Him (I Corinthians 3:9-15), but Psalm 119 is speaking of a reward for obedience which is to be received and enjoyed here and now. In obedience we hear God’s voice and are made truly free.
Think on these things:
“Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me,
I do not forget thy law.”
“If they hear and serve Him,
They shall end their days in prosperity,
And their years in pleasures.”
“. . . for not the hearers of the Law are just before God,
but the doers of the Law will be justified.”
2 Corinthians 10:5
“We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised
up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought
captive to the obedience of Christ.”
2 John 1:6
“And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments.
This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning,
that you should walk in it.”