Today’s readings feature two “hard sayings,” one on the Eucharist, the other on marriage. One is hard because it defies our sensibilities, the other is hard because it is out of season and politically incorrect.
The first hard saying is Jesus’ insistence that the Eucharist is actually his Body and Blood and that we must eat his true Flesh and drink his true Blood as our true food, as our necessary manna to sustain us in our journey through the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Heaven. We have examined this teaching extensively in previous weeks and it is clear that the Lord is not speaking in a mere figurative or symbolic way. It is also clear that his listeners understand him to be speaking in a literal way so as to be insisting that they eat his flesh, really truly, and substantially. Their severe reaction to Jesus is understandable only to the extent that they interpret Jesus to be speaking literally as opposed to figuratively. They scoff and murmur but Jesus only doubles down and insists that if they do not gnaw on his flesh and devour his blood they have no life in them (cf Jn 6:53-54).
This leads to today’s scoff: This saying is hard; who can accept it? The Greek word translated here as “hard” is Σκληρός (skleros) and does not mean hard in the sense of being difficult to understand. Rather it means, hard in the sense of being violent, harsh, or stern. It describes a position or person who is stubborn, and unyielding, It describes someone who “won’t budge” (bend, or submit), or what is unyieldingly harsh.
Despite every protest, Jesus will not back down for a moment, will not qualify what he has said, or in any way seek to minimize its impact. So essential is the food of His Flesh and Blood that he will not even hint that there is some way out of this “hard saying.”
The upshot is: many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Knowing this and seeing it, Jesus remains clear on his teaching and calls the question for you and me: “Do you also want to leave?” How will you answer him?
The Eucharist remains a “hard saying” because it goes against our senses. Of the five senses, four are utterly deceived, for the Eucharistic elements still look, taste, smell and feel like bread and wine. Only the hearing is safely believed: “This is my Body,…This is my Blood.” Yes, it is hard. Will you leave? Or perhaps in a more mitigated way, will your faith in this be tepid, the kind that is un-devoted, drifting from regular reception? Where do you stand on this hard saying?
How consoled the Lord must have been at Peter’s words: 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. And how joyful he must be at your “Amen” each Sunday as you are summoned to faith: “The Body of Christ.” Yes, you stand with Christ.
Sadly others leave. Only 27% of Catholics go to Mass. Further, many other Christians reject the dogma of the True Presence in the Holy Eucharist even though Jesus paid so dearly to proclaim it to us.
A Hard saying? Yes! but “Amen anyhow!” I stand with Jesus!
Hard saying number two is “hard ” for a different reason: it is (way) out of season and politically incorrect for its insistence not only on headship in marriage but male headship. The Holy Spirit and the Apostles apparently never got the memo which says this teaching is a “no-go” for a modern and “enlightened” age. Indeed the line “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” is like a stick in the eye to most moderns. Talk about a hard saying.
There are cultural and worldly notions that underlie the rejection by many Catholics and Christians of the biblical teaching on the headship of the husband. Indeed, such a concept is unpopular in our culture which usually gets pretty worked up over questions of authority in general. But that is because the worldly notion of authority usually equates authority only with power, dignity, rights and being somehow “better.”
But these are not biblical premises about authority. Consider what Jesus says about authority:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority and make their importance felt. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:41-45)
Jesus thus sets aside the worldly notion of authority wherein those in authority wield their power by “lording it over” using fear, and the trappings of power. But in the Christian setting there is authority (there has to be), but it exists for service.
Consider a teacher in a classroom. She has authority. She has to in order to unify and keep order. But she has that authority in order to serve the children, not to berate them and revel in power over over them. The same is true for a police officer who has his authority not for his own sake, but for ours so he can protect us and preserve order.
Further, having authority in a Christian setting does not make one better, for authority is always exercised among equals. Our greatest dignity is to be a child of God, and none of us are more or less so because we hold any position of authority.
But, truth be told, worldly notions of authority affect Christians and many harbor resentments to authority because they think of it in worldly ways. Further, many who have authority (and most of us have some authority) can also fall prey to worldly notions of authority and abuse their leadership role.
The key to understanding the authority of a husband and father in the home is set aside worldly notions of authority and see the teaching in the light of the Christian understanding of authority as existing for love and service, to unite and preserve.
With that in mind let us turn to the “unpopular” and politically incorrect notion of wives being submissive to their husbands.The teaching is found in a number of places in the New Testament: Ephesians 5:22ff (today’s text); Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1. In all places the wording is quite similar that wives are to be submissive, that is under the authority, of their husbands. In each case however, the teaching is balanced by an exhortation that the husband is to love and be considerate of his wife.
The most well known of the texts is today’s text from Ephesians 5, wherein the infamous as we have noted is: Wives should be subordinate to their Husbands as to the Lord. For the Husband is the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is the Head of the Church…so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything; (Eph 5:20-21, 23)
Alright, so maybe it grates on modern ears today but don’t just dismiss what God teaches here. One of the great dangers of this passage is that it is so startling to modern ears, that many people tune out after the first line into their own thoughts and reactions, and thus miss the rest of what God has to say. It will be noticed that there is text that follows, and before a man gloats at the first line, or a women reacts with anger or sadness, we do well to pay attention to the rest of the text, which spells out the duties of a husband.
You see if you’re going to be the head of a household there are certain requirements that have to be met. God’s not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands that is demanding and requires him to curb any notions that authority is about power and to remember that, for a Christian, authority is always given so that the one who has it may serve. And before we look at submission we might do well to look at the duties of the husband.
So what are the requirements for a husband?
1. Husbands, love your wives– Pay attention men, don’t just tolerate your wife, don’t just bring home money, don’t just love in some intellectual sort of way. LOVE your wife with all your heart. Beg God for the grace to love your wife tenderly, powerfully and unconditionally. Did you hear what God says? LOVE your wife! Now he goes on to tell you to love her in three ways: passionately, purifyingly and providingly.
2. Passionate love – The text says a man is to love his wife: even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her. The Greek word, παραδίδωμι (paradidomi), translated here as, “handed over,” always refers in the New Testament to Jesus’ crucifixion. Husbands, are you willing to give your life for your wife and children? Are you willing to die to yourself and give your life as a daily sacrifice for them? God instructs you to love your wife (and children) with the same kind of love he has for his Bride the Church. That kind of love is summed up in the cross. Love your wife passionately, be willing to suffer for her, be willing to make sacrifices for her and the children.
3. Purifying love – The text says of Christ, and the husband who is to imitate him, that Christ wills 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. Now a husband cannot sanctify his wife in the same way God can. But what a husband is called to do is to help his wife and children grow in their relationship to Jesus Christ. He is first to be under God’s authority himself, and thus make it easier for his wife and children to live out their baptismal commitments. He ought to be a spiritual leader in his home, praying with his wife and children, reading scripture and seeing to it that his home is a place where God is loved and obeyed, first of all by him. His wife should not have to drag him to Church, he should willingly help her to grow in holiness, and pray with her every day. And he should become more holy as well and thus make it easier for his wife to live the Christian life. He should be the first teacher of his children, along with his wife in the ways of faith.
Too many American homes do not feature a man being the spiritual leader of his house. If any one is raising up the kids in the Lord it is usually the wife. But Scripture has in mind that the husband and father should be a spiritual leader to his wife and children. Scripture says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). Fathers and husbands need to step up here and not leave all the burden to his wife.
4. Providing love – 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 – Husbands, take care of your wife in her needs. She needs more than food money and shelter, these days she can get a lot of that for herself. What she needs even more is your love, understanding, and appreciation. She needs for you to be a good listener and wants an attentive husband who is present to her. Like any human being she needs reassurance and affirmation. Tell her of your love and appreciation, don’t just presume she knows. Show care for your wife, attend to her needs just like you instinctively do for your own self. Encourage her with the kids. Confirm her authority over the kids and teach them to respect their mother. Show her providing love also by taking up your role and duties as a father who is involved with his kids. That’s what God is teaching here.
OK, so scripture DOES teach that a wife should be submitted to her husband. But what kind of husband does scripture have in mind? A husband who really loves his wife, who is a servant leader, who is makes sacrifices for his wife, who is prayerful and spiritual, submitted to God’s authority and who cares deeply for his wife and her needs. The same God who teaches submission (and he does) also teaches these things clearly for the husband. The teaching must be taken as a whole. But all that said, there IS a teaching on wives being submitted to their husbands (properly understood).
And there is just no way around it, no matter how much the modern age wants to insist there doesn’t need to be headship, there does. Every organization needs a head. Consider your own body first. With two heads you’re a freak, with no head you are dead. The members of your body need a head to unify the parts, otherwise there is disunity, death and decay. Every organization needs headship, a final decider, to whom all look when consensus on significant issues cannot otherwise be reached. The Protestants have tried to have a “church” without a head, without a Pope, and behold the division. Even this Country, which we like to call a democracy, is not actually a pure democracy. There are legislators, judges, law enforcers and many other people and mechanisms who exercise local, federal and final headship and authority.
Thus in a family, where consensus and compromise may often win the day, nevertheless needs a head, a final decider, to whom all look and all submit, to resolve conflicts that cannot be resolved otherwise. Scripture assigns this task to the husband and father. Headship just has to be. But please remember to shed your worldly notions of headship when considering the teaching of Scripture and remember, headship, authority, is for love and service, it is for unity and preservation, not for power, prestige, trappings and superiority.
For more on this consider listening to my sermon Teaching on Marriage in mp3 format. But beware, It is 35 minutes! Consider downloading it if you can’t listen just now. You can download this and other sermons of mine by going here: http://frpope.com/audio/recordings.php and then right clicking on the title of any talk and selecting the “Save Target As” option. You can also get my sermons at iTunes. Just search on my name.
This video clip is from the movie Fireproof and depicts a heartfelt apology from a husband who realizes he has not loved his wife as he should. A beautiful movie available at Amazon if you have never seen it.