21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
Text: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 4:32-5:1-2, 21-32++; John 6:53, 60-69.
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”1 It would be easy for us to hear this and congratulate ourselves. We, after all, are the ones who have accepted the difficult teachings. We say “Amen!” at the appointed places in the liturgy, affirming our belief in the Body and Blood of Christ. We stand with Joshua and the Israelites in declaring that we also will serve the Lord, renewing our baptismal promises with the refrain, “We will, with God’s help.”2 We are the righteous ones, hurrah for us!
If we are the ones who have said yes, then what about everyone else? It’s very tempting to declare that those who aren’t with us—however we choose to define that “us”—are those who have turned away from God, and deserve our condemnation. Can we be sure, though, of what has really turned them away? Is it really a deepening awareness of Jesus’ teaching on radical love and a new way of relating to God that has caused so many to leave the church?
So, how about that second reading? “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”3 Amen? Maybe to us, here and now, this is the difficult teaching, even though just about all of us said, or perhaps mumbled, “Thanks be to God” at the end of the reading. Reading on in Paul’s letter, things don’t get any better. “Children, be obedient to your parents in the Lord”4 is all right at first glance, but how about “Slaves, be obedient to the men who are called your masters in this world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty, as you are obedient to Christ”?5 That’s the Jerusalem Bible translation, anyway; the literal translation from the Greek reads “with fear and trembling.” With our individualistic, egalitarian social ideals, this stuff doesn’t sit well with many of us. Over the years, many of us Christians have taken these words at their surface meaning, and used them to justify condemnations of wives fleeing abusive husbands and slaves fighting back against barbaric working conditions and cruel owners, and to silence children who dare to speak out against abusive authorities.
Furthermore, today’s readings, seen through a certain traditionalist lens, can be taken as reinforcing the view that women are inherently more carnal and less spiritual than men: “husbands should love their wives as they love their own bodies”6, but “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”7 The image of the spiritual man and the physical woman is a long-standing one in the church,8 and is part of an ongoing male-centered pattern of theology and tradition which continues to devalue women today.
Surely, this isn’t what Paul intended, and yet, it is what people sometimes—too often—see us Christians live. Small wonder, perhaps, that so many have turned away from the church and no longer associate with us.9 It is perhaps not God, not Jesus’ teaching, that has turned so many of them away, but our choices. As Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”10
To help in remedying this, I have to begin with myself, accepting God’s call and seeking God’s love, which is the surest compass I know. If I change the lens through which I view today’s readings, I see that Paul’s writing is an instruction and an image for a particular society in a particular place and time, and a metaphor based in their common experience. Here, today, women and men do not occupy the same social roles as they did two thousand years ago; there is much more flexibility and equality, although it is not fully realized yet. The essential aspects of Paul’s writing as I see them with this new lens, however, transcend those limitations: loving human relationships can exist in any social context, so long as they are based on mutuality even if they aren’t symmetrical, and can provide a glimpse of the loving relationship between God and us. Marriage, in which people commit most fully to such a relationship and thus achieve greatest unity, is a particularly significant prototype of the ultimate union with God which is our aim. Demanding that a person submit unquestioningly to the abuse of another is a perversion of this teaching about the relationships between God and humankind.
In the church today, we hear in the Gospel a message of social transformation, a direction to build more just societies. The more just—the more loving—a society is, the more opportunity its members have to experience the love which guides us toward unity with God and each other. Communities acting together reinforce their members; the response of the Israelites to Joshua’s affirmation that he and his household would serve the Lord strengthens all of them together in their faith.11 Quoting Ghandi again, “Be the change you want to see in the world”12 is where it begins, as with Joshua; if God calls others and they heed the call, any of us can be a spark for that transformation.
It seems to me that the physical world is a training ground and active metaphor for the spirit. When we eat and drink Jesus’ flesh and blood, the physical act is a sign of something more. We offer ourselves, open to God’s will,13 and pray that we too may become bread,14 caring and providing for each other; in so doing, we also pray to become Jesus’ body, animated by the blood of the Holy Spirit. This unification, which we know and live only imperfectly in this life, is the realization of the mystery of the marriage between Christ and the Church.15 This teaching is difficult because of what it means for us: we have to abandon the false certainties of the status quo and the false gods of pride and self-centeredness in order to fully receive the body and blood of Jesus: God’s transforming, unifying love.
1: John 6:60
2: Rite of Baptism, as used at St. Joseph’s Parish.
3: Ephesians 5:22
4: Ephesians 6:1
5: Ephesians 6:5
6: Ephesians 5:28
7: John 6:63
8: McLaughlin, E.C.: “Equality of souls, inequality of sexes: women in medieval theology”, published in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, R.R. Reuther, ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974, p. 216.
9: Cf. John 6:66
11: Joshua 24:31
13: Offertory prayer, as used in the Liturgy of the Mass at St. Joseph’s Parish.
14: Missioning prayer, as used in the Liturgy of the Mass at St. Joseph’s Parish.
15: Ephesians 5:32