The commitment to be bound to another person for life is never made once and for all, but must be renewed again and again. This is true not only of our commitments to one another, but also of our commitment to God through Jesus. At particular moments we must decide definitively and not simply drift along.
In the first reading, Joshua calls together all the tribes of Israel and their leaders. For some of the people this may have been an occasion of initial commitment; for others it was a re-affirmation of a way they had already chosen. Joshua puts a choice before them: either serve the Lord who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, who performed great miracles before their eyes and who protected them all along the journey, or serve the other gods of the land in which they dwelt. It seems impossible and illogical to make any choice other than to respond wholeheartedly to God, who had begun the relationship with such extraordinary saving acts. Joshua leads the way by declaring that he and his household will serve God alone.
A similar choice is set before the disciples of Jesus in today’s Gospel. The decision is whether to believe in the one whose words are “spirit and life.” The setting is the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude and his invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Unlike the first reading, the choice here is not so evident and logical. The disciples say, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” What Jesus asks of them is shocking, as he himself recognizes. It includes a mysterious element of gift that is inexplicable (like the fact that we can never fully or logically explain why we would choose to spend our whole life with another when such a commitment is bound to entail great difficulties). Love and the gracious gift of God are often all we can offer to explain such a choice.
Hard choices must also be made when we face changed circumstances. Sometimes commitments once made have to be re-evaluated. Former President Jimmy Carter recently described the painful decision he made in 2000 to break his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, because they insisted on the subservience of women to men and barred women from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. After belonging to this denomination for six decades, he made a difficult choice.
The second reading today invites us to re-examine patterns of relationship that can harm women rather than foster greater love. This segment of Ephesians is a Christian adaptation of the household codes common from the time of Aristotle. These outlined the proper workings of a Greek home in terms of the paterfamilias as ruler, to whom the women, children and slaves were subordinate. The version in Ephesians begins by exhorting the mutual subordination of husbands and wives to one another out of reverence for Christ, but then elaborates only one direction of the relationship: the responsibilities of husbands and the subservience of wives to them. This reading is most often used to reinforce male domination over women.
Yet the model presented to husbands is that of Christ’s complete self-sacrificing love for the church. If husbands exercised such self-surrender in love toward their wives, it would result in the dismantling of structures of male domination and initiate a whole new pattern of mutual respect and self-giving love. This manner of relating goes against the grain of most cultures. Just as Jesus’ disciples exclaimed in the Gospel about how hard it was to accept his self-gift of flesh and blood, so it is not easy for us to make a commitment to new patterns of relating if they require mutual self-surrender to one another in love. One must make a deliberate choice to learn about and put into practice egalitarian ways of relating, which also involve leaving behind familiar ways. It is an urgent choice for life or death. Choose today.