Jesus lost many disciples as a result of his Bread of Life discourse, which we have been hearing over the last few Sundays. The collective weight of his pronouncements—I am the bread of life; I am the bread that came down from heaven; unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you (Jn 6:35, 41, 53)—was just too much. “As a result,” John tells us in today’s reading, “many of his disciples…no longer accompanied him.” Peter, speaking for the Twelve, assures Jesus that their choice is with him: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Making the hard choice is the issue Joshua puts to the people of God. He calls the elders and asks them who their God will be. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” The elders assure him their choice is also the Lord. In the text immediately following this reading Joshua challenges them: “You may not be able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God” (24:19). They commit themselves a second time. Moses had also asked twice (Ex 24:3-7).
One of the hard choices (albeit of a different sort) for pastors is the decision whether to use the full version of the second reading, in which we read, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” The Lectionary allows the omission of this and similar verses.
The issue of submission came up once pastorally as I was asked to adjudicate a marital dispute. A couple had four children in grade school, and the husband discerned God calling the couple to have another. His wife discerned no such thing. He then asked her to submit respectfully to his headship in the family. I told them that he could not extrapolate his discernment to what God’s will was for her. “You both need to experience the call for another child as God’s will to go forward,” I told them. Obviously, I sidestepped the biblical problem.
The issue also came up in class this year. “The problem with feminism,” a student announced, “is that it encourages wives to think they don’t need to be subordinate to their husbands, which the word of God clearly teaches.” This comment led to a handout and discussion during the next class. We looked at today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians and other texts that say the same. The next part of the handout had even more New Testament citations—supporting slavery. How can you accept one set as a universal, timeless mandate from God and another as a cultural reflection of the era and not God’s will? We also looked at a dozen other texts that illustrate the same problem.
Since the time of Pope Pius XII (“Divino Afflante Spiritu”), the Catholic Church has formally taught that one can understand the revelation of Scripture only when one takes account of the cultural assumptions in which it is embedded, with their limitations and biases. One way to separate the revelatory gold from the cultural dross is to see what the inspired authors do with those cultural assumptions. That is, how does God shake things up? Consider how it would be experienced in Paul’s day to hear that a wife has authority over her husband’s body (1 Cor 7:4), or that husbands should give themselves over to their wives completely as Christ did for the church (Eph 5:25). The greatest shock might come from the first line in today’s reading, often overlooked: “Be subordinate to one another.” Given the cultural assumptions, the principle of mutuality looks like a divine shake-up indeed.
To me, faithfulness to the word would involve embracing this principle in our current cultural context. Consider Pope John Paul II’s statement in “Familiaris Consortio” (No. 22): “Above all it is important to underline the equal dignity and responsibility of women with men. This equality is realized in a unique manner in that reciprocal self-giving by each one to the other.”
St. Paul’s challenge today: radical, mutual, reciprocal self-giving. This is a hard teaching that calls for hard choices. Can we say yes?