Today’s readings, celebrating the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, elucidate aspects of familial relationships and human values. The first and second readings address the parent-child relationship; the Gospel provides an example of parental protection. The second reading also describes marital relationships and presents us with the challenge of interpreting texts that reflect a patriarchal society and have been used to advocate for injustice.
Clothe yourselves with compassion, meekness and patience. (Col 3:12)
How can I foster relationships that are grounded on love and respect?
Do I consider all people to be members of my family?
In the Gospel, the Holy Family leaves Judea and flees to Egypt to avoid King Herod during his massacre of the infants. This reading shows the perseverance and care of Jesus’ parents and speaks loudly to contemporary conversations about asylum and immigration. At today’s borders, families seeking refuge are turned away, arrested and even separated. Imagine if the Holy Family experienced these situations when they sought refuge in Egypt. The Gospel clearly rejects the injustice of Herod’s persecution and recognizes the importance of a safe haven for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The background text for both the first and second readings is the commandment to honor one’s parents (Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16). Sirach insists that caring for parents is beneficial to parents, children and society. Similarly, Colossians advocates for care of parents and emphasizes reciprocity in the parent-child relationship. Importantly, Colossians encourages believers in Christ to clothe themselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love. These readings call us to treat one another like family, with dignity and respect.
But in the longer Lectionary reading from Colossians, we also read: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them” (Col 3:18-19). As these are optional readings, it might be preferable to proclaim the shorter reading that ends with an encouragement for Christians to offer words and deeds in the name of the Lord (Col 3:17).
With its insistence on the subordination of wives, Col 3:18-19 has the dangerous power to promote injustice in marriage and in society. This sentiment is not unique in the New Testament (see 1 Cor 14:34; Eph 5:22; Ti 2:3-5; 1 Pt 3:1-6). How should we interpret these verses today?
Some may argue that this Scripture shows that the subordination of women is warranted. This is a mistake. Let us not seek value where there is none to be found. Or we could read this text as a metaphor for our relationship with God. In this case, all Christians are wives who are subject to their husband/God’s authority and love. This approach has support in passages that describe the church as the bride of Christ (see 2 Cor 11:2-3; Eph 5:22-33).
But it may be most helpful to recognize honestly this text’s context and limitations. Colossians reflects the patriarchal society in which it originated. It asserts a hierarchical relationship between wives and husbands because that sentiment was endorsed by many people, institutions and laws. We must make moral judgments about how Scripture is interpreted and applied today. We should acknowledge its historical setting, recognize the immorality of the subjugation of women and move beyond it to promote relationships that are grounded on love and respect rather than principles of subjugation.