Sunday, August 23, 2015

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

Perhaps out of concern for the safety of preachers
the Church allows for the omission
of the first part of our second reading—
that is, the part about wives
submitting to their husbands as to the Lord.
While I appreciate the Church’s concern for my well being,
I think that we should be hesitant
to skip over such difficult parts of Scripture,
because in our struggle to hear such passages
as the word of God and as good news
we join in the struggle of Christians down through time who,
like the disciples in our Gospel reading,
have said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

The problems with what Paul says probably seem obvious:
not only does it run counter
to our own modern, egalitarian ideas of marriage,
but this verse has historically been used to keep women
in emotionally and physically abusive relationships.
Yet these are also the words of sacred Scripture.

In our struggle to hear these words as good news,
we might begin by putting it into historical context:
Paul lived in the first century,
and what he says about husbands and wives
presumes the conventional Greco-Roman
household structure of that time,
including the patriarchal preeminence of the man.
In other words, Paul was a man of his day
and we should not expect him
to reflect all of our modern values;
but we can still listen to his words
in order to discern
what is simply a reflection
of his particular culture and time
and what is of universal and enduring value.
Some have argued that we ought to emphasize the first line
as the key to understanding everything else that Paul says:
“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Pope John Paul II wrote concerning this passage:
The husband and the wife are in fact ‘subject to one another,’
and are mutually subordinated to one another.…
Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife
might become a servant or a slave of the husband,
an object of unilateral domination.
Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife,
and thereby subject to the Lord himself,
just as the wife to the husband
(John Paul II, General Audience, 8/11/82).
Interpreted in this way, we can see that,
working within his historical context,
Paul is reinterpreting the patriarchal family structure
in a way that subtly (perhaps too subtly?)
shifts the focus from the wife’s submission to the husband
to their mutual submission to each other
as a way of submitting to God.
So perhaps through understanding the historical context
and careful interpretation
we can find a way to hear Paul’s words
as the word of God and as good news.

Yet it’s not really that easy, is it?
Attention to historical context and careful interpretation
might simply become ways of evading truths we find difficult.
And even if attention to historical context
and careful interpretation
do offer ways of better understanding Paul’s words,
as I think they do,
I suspect that some, perhaps many, of you
are still no happier with Paul now
than you were when I began this homily.
Whether we are dealing with the words of Paul or,
as with the disciples in today’s Gospel,
the words of Jesus,
there are no quick fixes
for the difficult passages of Scripture.

But here is where I believe our Gospel reading
can shed some light
on how we deal with Scriptures
that are hard and difficult to accept.

At the end of everything Jesus has been saying
about being the bread of life that has come down from heaven
and the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood
in order to have life
the disciples split into two groups.
But the division is not between
those who find his words difficult to accept
and those who find them easy to accept.
Rather, it is between those who,
finding his words difficult to accept,
leave him and the company of his disciples
and go back to their former lives,
and the Twelve who,
finding his words no less difficult to accept,
hang in there with him, and with each other,
seeking to understand his words
because, as Peter says,
“Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.”
Both groups find his words difficult,
but for some this difficulty
leads them to walk away
from the task of understanding Jesus,
while the Twelve stay with him
and continue to struggle with his words,
because they know that it is only in their fellowship
with him and with each other
that they can ever hope to hear his words
as words of everlasting life.

So too for us,
when we are confronted with Scriptural words
that are difficult and hard to accept,
we can either simply walk away
and go back to life as usual,
investing our Sunday mornings in brunch
or soccer leagues
or reading the newspaper
or binge-watching something on Netflix,
or, like the Twelve, we can hang in there with Jesus
and with our fellow Christians,
in the faith that the only way to hear these words
as words of everlasting life
is to struggle with them together,
as a community that gathers at Christ’s altar
to receive the bread of life.

In the face of difficult Scripture we should not seek
an explanation that will make them palatable,
but rather hear an invitation to struggle together:
to struggle together with a tradition
that is deeply embedded in history,
yet continues to be made and remade in our own day;
to struggle together with texts that can shock and annoy
yet can nourish us still if we read closely and carefully;
to struggle together to hear the words of everlasting life.