Aug 26, 2018: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands.

1st Reading – Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b

Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,
summoning their elders, their leaders,
their judges, and their officers.
When they stood in ranks before God,
Joshua addressed all the people:
“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

But the people answered,
“Far be it from us to forsake the LORD
for the service of other gods.
For it was the LORD, our God,
who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt,
out of a state of slavery.
He performed those great miracles before our very eyes
and protected us along our entire journey
and among the peoples through whom we passed.
Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

Joshua is the sixth book of the Old Testament and named after the one to whom
Jewish tradition attributes authorship. However, the current form cannot be entirely his work, as some passages point to events which occurred at a later date.

Joshua (in Greek: Jesus, Hebrew: Yeshua) was Moses’ designated successor. Moses passed all his authority to Joshua with the exception of his priestly powers, which went to Eleazar.

Today’s reading comes from the last chapter of the book where Joshua speaks to the people assembled at Shechem.  The subject of his address is fidelity to God’s law.

Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel

Representatives from each of the twelve tribes have been convened.

at Shechem,

Shechem was the site of an ancient shrine.  The name means “shoulders” because of its location between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, in the area that eventually became known as Samaria.

summoning their elders, their leaders, their judges and their officers.

All those who held a position of leadership or authority were present.

When they stood in ranks before God,

The expression “before God” probably refers to the ark of the covenant, which is believed to have been kept in the shrine at Shechem.  The ark was a chest which contained several of Israel’s sacred objects and served as the symbol of God’s presence in the midst of the people.

This is clearly a religious assembly, and a serious one at that.

Joshua addressed all the people: If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve,

Joshua places before the people a choice that will determine their self-identity.  Whom will they serve?

the gods your fathers served beyond the River

They can continue to serve their ancestral gods and remain true to their past identity.

or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling.

It was a commonly held belief at the time that gods were attached to specific territories, and people often revered the god of whatever territory they were in, in order to live there peacefully.

This is the practice being held up as their second choice: to serve the gods of the people in the land they are now dwelling, and hope to reap the accompanying blessings.

As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

The third choice: serve the Lord, who is tied neither to their cultural past nor their geographic present.

Joshua decisively states his personal choice: “We will serve the Lord.”

The rest of the people must choose for themselves, freely.

But the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods. For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed.

In making their choice, the people recite the high points of their salvation history.  The recital itself is characteristic of a covenant ritual and may indicate that this event was a ceremony of some kind.

In fact, it’s possible that this was a covenant renewal ceremony that not only affirmed their commitment to the Lord, but also incorporated new members.

Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

Their choice of a god was determined not by the territory in which they lived, but by the personal involvement of God in their lives: a highly unusual concept at the time.

The union and identity of the people of Israel is therefore religious in nature: they worship Yahweh and Yahweh alone, regardless of where they are or from where they have come. They are a covenant people.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 5:21-32

Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
This is a great mystery,
but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.

In today’s reading, our last from the letter to the Ephesians for this liturgical year, Paul addresses the responsibilities of husbands within Christian marriage.  The supposition here is that both husband and wife are Christians (1 Peter 3:1-7 addresses the relationship of a Christian wife and a pagan husband). Parent-child relationships are addressed in Ephesians 6:1-4.

Brothers and sisters: Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Paul begins with a statement of mutual subordination.  Christ’s self-sacrificing love for others (Ephesians 5:1) is now the model for Christian life. Applied here to spouses, it is also the basis for relationships between parents and children as well as masters and slaves.

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. 

The patriarchal aspect of the relationship as described by Paul sounds like nails on a chalkboard for modern day believers, who have a very different understanding of the dignity of women and the mutuality that is expected within a contemporary marriage.

This text can only be examined within its own context, which is centered around deference and reverence.

For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

A somewhat circular argument.  The husband is to the wife as Christ is to the Church; therefore the wife is to the husband as the Church is to Christ.

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her

Christ gave his life out of love for the Church.  This is the degree of commitment envisioned for husbands.

This teaching is rooted in the Old Testament, where the relationships between Yahweh and His people are expressed in terms of the relationships between husband and
wife (Isaiah 54:5-6; Isaiah 62:5; Ezekiel 16:1-34).

to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

“By what ‘word’ is she ‘washed?’ ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ He did not simply bathe her; He adorned her, making her glorious, having no spot or wrinkle or anything lacking. Let us not seek from the wife something she does not have to give. For you see the pattern: the Church has received everything from Christ” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 20,5,27].

So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

Christ humbled himself by taking on a human nature, being born into poverty.  He submitted to Roman and Jewish authorities, forsaking his divine omnipotence, for the sake of the Church.  He also practiced servant leadership, perhaps best displayed when he humbly washed the feet of the apostles before the Last Supper (John 13:1-17).

This degree of sacrificial love leaves no room for patriarchal domination of husbands over wives.  It is self-destroying to hurt, abuse, or degrade the spouse.

If all husbands were to hold this attitude, all dominance and hierarchy would be subverted.  This statement by Paul is one of radical equality, although clearly made within his own contemporary context.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The Genesis account of the physical union between husband and wife (2:24) is reinterpreted here to describe the love husbands are to have for their wives.

Note the balance: the man is joined to his wife, not the other way around.  The man leaves his father and mother, the wife doesn’t.  The man doesn’t just love his wife, or provide for her, he is joined to her.  The two become one.

This continues Paul’s earlier instruction that a man should love his wife as his own body — in fact, they are one body.

This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.

Interestingly, Paul’s conclusion is abrupt.  He appears to have been caught up in the complexity of his argument and simply moves on, making a final note that this transformed understanding of marriage also characterizes the mysterious union of Christ and the Church.

His point is this: there maybe suggestions of male dominance here, but that conclusion collapses under internal contradiction.  Both husband and wife are to put one another first.

However, even within the bounds of strict egalitarianism, this still poses problems for the modern believer.  If we love each other as has been proposed, we will most assuredly die to ourselves.  The first casualty of self-sacrificial love is our ego, and that may rankle us more than anything else.

“The union of Christ and the Church is holy. So is the proper union of husband and wife holy. Just as a congregation of heretics, however, cannot rightly be called the Church of Christ and cannot have Christ as its head, so it is that the union between husband and wife cannot be truly called holy if there is a disregard for the way of life taught by Christ” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 436), Commentaries On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 5,22-23].

Gospel – John 6:60-69

Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”

As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

We now complete our study of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in John’s gospel, a study that has taken us four weeks to cover 46 verses.  Today’s reading recounts the reaction to Jesus’ radical teaching.

Many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

The saying referred to here is Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man who had come down from heaven.  But remember, in this discourse, Jesus has made many claims, all under a covenant oath:

  • He is the Messiah, or at least a prophet — but they know his family.
  • He is the Bread of Life — but they know he was born a human.
  • He gives eternal life — but this is something only God can do.
  • He has taught that we must eat his flesh — but this is cannibalism (not to mention revolting).
  • We must also drink his blood — but this is expressly forbidden by the Law (and, also revolting!).

Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you?

The disciples were more than shocked by what Jesus has said, they were scandalized.  They had given up their lives to follow Jesus, and he is now making statements that seem insane at best, sacrilegious at worst.  What have they done?

What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

Jesus is saying, If you can’t grasp the idea that I descended from heaven, what if you were to see me ascending back to heaven?  Would that convince you?

He does not say that they will witness his ascent, he simply asks them how they would respond if they did.

It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.

A body without a spirit is dead, a corpse.

Without the Holy Spirit, we are spiritually dead.

The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.

After pointing out that only the Spirit gives life, Jesus claims that his teachings are both Spirit and life.

But there are some of you who do not believe.”

Jesus acknowledges that despite their witness of the wonders he has performed, some still do not believe.

Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”

Faith in Jesus does not come easily or naturally; it is a grace given by God.  This grace is available to all, but Jesus knew that some would accept it (and him) and some would not.

As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of followers left, turning their backs on Jesus and eternal life.

A key to understanding this passage is that when Jesus spoke in parables to the people, he explained everything to the apostles in private (Mark 4:34). That doesn’t happen here: he does not elaborate his teaching; he offers no further explanation.

If Jesus had not been speaking literally, this was his last chance to correct their misunderstanding. Since he made no such correction, we have absolute assurance that their literal understanding is the correct one.

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”

Jesus is not indifferent to the departure of the others.  He turns to the apostles to see what they are going to do.

Note that he neither asks them to stay nor gives them permission to go.

Simon Peter answered him, ”Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Peter, the spokesman for the group, displays his acceptance of Jesus’ teaching.

No one else has the promise of eternal life; despite the fact that they do not fully understand his message, there is nowhere else to go.

We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Peter’s profession of faith comes to an amazing conclusion: he uses a messianic title to identify Jesus.  This indicates that while some have turned away from Jesus, others have been convinced.

Although the apostles have not yet come to know Christ in all his fullness, they commit to the pathway to this knowledge. They do not fully understand his teaching, but they accept it out of faith in him.

Connections and Themes

  • All three readings this week call us to decide whom to follow.  This is not an mundane decision, but a life decision — one that dictates who we want to be and what kind of lives we want to lead.
    • Joshua convenes all twelve tribes of the Israelites and instructs them to “decide today whom you will serve.”
    • Paul outlines a self-sacrificial model of marriage in which husband and wife serve not only God, but each other.
    • Many of Jesus’ disciples reject him after the Bread of Life discourse, and walk away.  He turns to the apostles and asks, “Do you also want to leave?”
  • Jesus’ question to the Twelve acutely calls to mind the choices each of us must make on our spiritual journey.  Even the most profound revelations from God do not negate the mystery of human freedom.  It’s up to us, we must choose.  No one can do it for us.
  • Like most important life decisions, we make it without full information; that is, on faith.  We have faith that our chosen spouse will be faithful to our marriage, we have faith that our employer will treat us fairly, we have faith that our business partners will uphold their agreements and responsibilities.
  • We decide to follow Jesus on faith, but that faith isn’t blind — it’s based on his sacrificial love.  The one asking us to follow him is one who has laid down his life for us, completely out of love.  If that isn’t sufficient, “to whom shall we go?”  No one else offers anything that can compare.
  • Paul holds up Christ’s supreme love as the model for husbands.  Instructing wives to submit to their husbands as the head of the household is a tall order, but instructing husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church is even more daunting.  In marriage, as in life, we serve not only each other, but our very God.  He wants of us not slavery, but the free gift of our love.
  • Just as husband and wife become one, and just as the Church is one body with Christ as the head, so will our union with God be.  If we commit ourselves to serving the Lord, as Joshua and Peter did, we will enter into a union with God deeper than anything we have ever known.  We may not understand completely, and we are certain to encounter challenges, but Jesus is God’s holy one; he has the words of eternal life.  We enter this union on faith.

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