Two Hard Sayings in One Day – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year

blog 8.22.15Today’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 on 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 merely figuratively or symbolically. His listeners understand Him to be speaking literally; He is insisting that they eat His flesh, really, truly, and substantially. The severe reaction of His listeners can only be explained if they believe that Jesus is speaking literally. The listeners scoff and murmur, but Jesus only doubles down, insisting that unless they gnaw (trogon) on His flesh and devour His blood they have no life in them (cf Jn 6:53-54).

This leads to the crowd’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) that is stubborn and unyielding, It describes something (or someone) that won’t bend or submit.

Despite every protest, Jesus will not back down for a moment. He will not qualify what He has said or in any way try 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 that many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Knowing this and seeing it, Jesus still remains clear in His teaching. He poses this question to his listeners and to 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 sense of hearing is safely believed: “This is my Body … This is my Blood … The Bread that I will give is my flesh.”

Yes, it is hard; will you leave? Maybe you won’t leave, but will your faith in the Eucharist be tepid, the kind of faith that is un-devoted? Will you drift away from regular reception of the Eucharist? Where do you stand on this “hard saying”?

How consoled the Lord must have been by 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 today 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.

Is it a hard saying? Yes! But Amen anyhow! I stand with Jesus! 


The second “hard saying” is hard for a different reason: it is (way) out-of-season and politically incorrect because it insists not only on headship within marriage but male headship. The Holy Spirit and the Apostles apparently never got the memo that this teaching is a “no go” in our modern, “enlightened” age. Indeed, the text “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 it only with power, dignity, rights, and being somehow “better” than someone else.

That is not the biblical view of 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 sets aside the worldly notion of authority, wherein those in authority wield their power by “lording it over” others using fear and the trappings of power. In the Christian setting there is authority (there has to be), but it exists for service.

Consider a classroom teacher. She has authority; she must, so that she can unify and keep order. But she has that authority in order to serve the children, not to berate them and revel in her power over them. The same is true for a police officer, who has authority not for his own sake but for ours, so that he can protect us and preserve order.

Having authority in a Christian setting does not make one “better” than another, for authority is always exercised among equals. Our greatest dignity is to be a child of God, and none of us is more so just because we hold a position of authority.

But, truth be told, worldly notions of authority affect Christians. Many harbor resentment against authority because they think of it in worldly ways. Further, many who have authority (and most of us have some authority in some capacity) can fall prey to these worldly notions and abuse their leadership role.

The key to understanding the authority of a husband and father within the home is to set aside worldly notions of authority and see the teaching in the light of the Christian understanding of authority: that it exists for love and service, to unite and preserve.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the highly 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; and 1 Peter 3:1. In all of these texts, the wording is quite similar: wives are to be submissive to, 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 these passages is today’s text from Ephesians 5: Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is Head of the Church … so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything (Eph 5:20-21, 23).

Maybe this grates on modern ears, 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 just tune out after the first line and thus miss the rest of what God has to say. There is text that follows. And before men gloat over the first part of the passage, or women react to it with anger or sadness, they should 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 the household there are certain requirements that must be met. God is not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands that is demanding; it requires them 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.

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 a paycheck; don’t just love her 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. Do you hear what God says? LOVE your wife! He goes on to tell husbands to love their wives in three ways: passionately, with a purifying love, and with a providing love.

2. Passionate love – The text says that 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 for your children.

3. Purifying love – The text says of Christ (and of the husband who is to imitate Him) that He 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 that God can. But what a husband is called to do is to help his wife and children grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. First, he is to be himself under God’s authority, thus making 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. He should become more holy himself as well, thus making 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 household. If anyone at all is raising up the children in the Lord, it is usually the wife. But Scripture has in mind that the husband and father should be the 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 on their wives.

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, clothing, and shelter. These days, she can get a lot of that for herself. What she needs more is your love, understanding, and appreciation. She needs for you to be a good listener. She needs 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 assume that she knows. Show care for your wife; attend to her needs just as you do instinctively for your own. Encourage her with the children. Confirm her authority over them and teach them to respect their mother. Show her providing love by taking up your proper role and duty as a father who is involved with his children. That is what God is teaching here.

OK, so scripture DOES teach that a wife should submit 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 makes sacrifices for his wife, who is prayerful and spiritual, who submits to God’s authority, and who cares deeply for his wife and her needs. The same God who teaches submission (and He does) also clearly teaches these things for the husband. The teaching must be taken as a whole. But all that said, there IS a teaching on wives submitting (properly understood) to their husbands.

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. With two heads you’d be a freak; with no head you’d be dead. The members of your body need a head to unify the parts, otherwise there would be disunity, death, and decay. Every organization needs headship; it needs a final decider, a person to whom all look when consensus on a significant issue cannot 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 that exercise local, state, federal, and final headship and authority.

Thus in a family, where consensus and compromise may often win the day, there nevertheless must be a head, a final decider to whom all look and submit, in order to resolve conflicts that cannot otherwise be worked out. 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. Headship (authority) is for love and service; it is for unity and preservation not for power, prestige, or superiority.

For more on this topic, consider listening to my sermon Teaching on Marriage (in mp3 format). But beware, it is 35 minutes long! Consider downloading it if you can’t listen to it just now. You can download this and other sermons of mine by going here: (Once there, right click on the title of any talk and select the “Save Target As” option.) You can also get my sermons at iTunes by searching on my name.

23 Replies to “Two Hard Sayings in One Day – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year”

  1. If JESUS and the Apostles give us hard sayings, we better listen and act on them because these hard sayings are the provisions and prerequisites in life to be able to touch heaven and be in heaven. Notice the three AMEN, AMEN I Say unto you in John 6. LORD, thank YOU for YOUR Truths!

  2. It is unfortunate that most people in the US and the UK will probably only hear one of these hard sayings at Mass. There is a short form for today’s 2nd reading – that I imagine the majority of parishes will use – which strips out the hard saying about headship. Eph. 5:21-32 becomes 5:2, 25-32 in the short form (so vv. 21-24 are omitted).

    It is also worth pointing out that this short form does not actually exist for this Sunday in the Ordo lectionum Missae (1981, 2nd edn), which is the book that details all the readings for every day and occasion in the Roman Rite. So, somewhere down the line, the US and UK bishops asked permission to have the option to omit the “hard saying” on headship!

    Is it too harsh to wonder why?

  3. It was also a “hard saying” when Jesus told Nicodenas that he must by “born again” because he took it literally while Jesus was speaking spiritually. Just because a saying is hard to understand, however, does not mean that we should focus on the literal and earthly, just as Jesus talks about in John 3:12: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

    1. Contextually of course the examples are very different. Jesus DOES correct Nicodemus’ understanding of him in a literal manner. In John 6 Jesus DOES NOT correct the literal interpretation of his words but doubles down and then suffers the loss of many disciples. At no time does he seek to correct them from a literal understanding. Hence, he means it literally, the Eucharist is his flesh and blood.

      1. “Sine parabola autem non loquebatur eis: seorsum autem discipulis suis disserebat omnia.” Mk 4:34
        (To them he spoke only in parables, and made all plain to his disciples when they were alone.)
        If this had been a parable, He would have explained it to His disciples and through their tradition and magisterium the people of God would have known the correct meaning of His words from the get go. The Church for 15 centuries believed so, until Calvin came up with his distortion of reality. It’s interesting to note that when Luther -who believed in the Real Presence- confronted Calvin’s assertion, it was too late for the Reformation as Calvin availed himself of Luther ‘ “sola scriptura” to throw Christianity into this 500-year riff between Christians.

  4. “… the other is hard because it is out-of-season and politically incorrect.”

    I disagree with the idea that Jesus’s teaching on marriage is uniquely “out of season” in our time. It has always been out of season. When Jesus declared that there was no such thing as divorce (Matthew 19:8-9 and parallel texts), the disciples immediately responded, “In that case, it is not expedient to marry!” (Matthew 19:10)

    This is exactly what people say today, though not necessarily because it’s terrifyingly permanent. In the U.S. today, marriage is not legally binding at all, so many people don’t see why they should bother. Instead, they live various forms of free fornication or concubinage, which is perhaps what Jesus’s disciples had in mind as alternatives to marriage (given the general unpopularity of lifelong continence).

  5. Amen. And let’s not forget the beautiful Magisterial teachings we have on the same topic, lest any Catholic deem him or herself exempt from today’s Second Reading:

    Pope Leo XII’s Immortale Dei paragraph 17 “… wherein the rights and duties of husband and wife are controlled with wise justice and equity; due honour is assured to the woman; the authority of the husband is conformed to the pattern afforded by the authority of God; the power of the father is tempered by a due regard for the dignity of the mother and her offspring; and the best possible provision is made for the guardianship, welfare, and education of the children.”

    Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubi paragraph 26 “…Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that “order of love,” as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience”

  6. When my wife heard the explanation from the pulpit that a husband and wife are completely equal in every way and a wife is not subordinate to her husband she left me after 47 years of marriage on the grounds of incompatibility. The church is watering down God’s word so that it is hardly identifiable to 50 years ago.

    Next to go will be that remarried Catholics will be welcomed back to the communion further destroying the indissolubility of marriage.

    1. Sorry for your loss. “The Church” is a bit too broad for me however. I am in the Church, so are you (I presume?). I do not think I am watering down the the teaching. As for your second point, I think it unlikely at this point that extending communion to divorced and remarried Catholics will happen

  7. The Eucharist. The pinnacle of our Catholic faith. It is such a wondrous and undeserving gift to all of us. If we fully understood it, no one would dare to miss or approach it without complete awe and reverence. Thank you Lord Jesus!

  8. Monsignor,

    I’m curious how you square this interpretation of Eph 5 with Pope St. John Paul II’s interpretation of it in Mulieris Dignitatem #24. There the pope states, “All the reasons in favour of the ‘subjection’ of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a ‘mutual subjection’ of both ‘out of reverence for Christ’.”

    He explains that the expectation that wives should be subject to their husbands would have been well-known and “profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time”. He goes on to say though that what was radically new in Ephesians was the insistence upon MUTUAL subjection, and that this innovation “constitutes the unambiguous content of the evangelical message and is the result of the Redemption.” The pope then suggests that just as it took the Church many generations to fully understand the implications of there being “no more slave or free person” in Christ, it likewise is taking us quite a long time to realize the implications of there being “no more man or woman” (Gal 3:28). Indeed, he says, “The awareness that in marriage there is mutual ‘subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ’, and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behaviour and customs.”

    I could be wrong, but I see some daylight between JPII’s interpretation and yours. You insist that in the marriage relationship that there must be a final authority, and this must be the husband. I have a hard time squaring that with JPII’s insistence that the true meaning of this passage is MUTUAL subjection that precludes the husband or the wife having more authority than the other. The pope makes this clear when he says, “However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual.”

    1. I think Pope JP II was speaking phenomenologically. IOW In most families, Father’s cede a lot of practical authority to their wives because their wives are gifted to lead the household in many daily matters. However theologically Paul’s logic remains clear: He states the principle: Be submitted to one another. Then he specifies what this means practically: wives submitted to husbands, children to their parents, and slaves to their masters. (Slavery understood in the 1st Century and not being the equivalent of slavery in the 16th Century). So that’s my take. Even though M.D. was an encyclical, I do not think St. John Paul was proposing a definitive interpretation of the text to which we are bound. Rather, here is a phenomenological understanding to balance a merely absolute understanding of a husband micromanaging everything. But the logic of the text cannot be set aside in my view, nor do I think JP could or would have done so.

    2. Being a wife of 31 years I have to say it wasn’t always easy submitting to my husband as the head of the family. However, I wouldn’t do it any other way.
      Man was created in the image and likeness of God, male and female he was created, in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God. Think about that. It wasn’t easy for Jesus to submit his will to the Father, but he did and he remains equal to the Father.
      Marriage is a likeness of God; One God, three Divine Persons. The family is the domestic church a trinitarian union. It is pretty clear to me that I am peaceful and joyful today because my husband and I try to live that image and likeness as best as imperfect beings can live it. Have there been hard times, rough roads? You bet there’ve been but prayer, faith and lots of humility(on both sides)gave us the life we have today which is pretty awesome. It requires a hundred percent giving as Our God has shown us through example.
      Scripture has it right, though it may be hard to swallow at times. Msgr Pope says it correctly; there must be one head.

  9. Paul struggled to define the relationship between a husband and wife in the Lord. In many contemporary pagan societies then, the wife and children were the property of the husband. My understanding is that Paul considers the husband as the head of the family and the wife as the heart. When you consider the inability of contemporary society to define the relationship between husband and wife, I think Paul’s explanation has stood the test of time.

  10. It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail…..also a hard saying that doesn’t get any respect in Catholic circles

  11. I’d like to chime in, here, if I may. I have been married almost 25 years and have three children, and I have always tried to submit to my husband, and teach my children that he is the boss. This is and has been really difficult when I disagree with him about things that are very important to me! It has also cost me a measure of closeness in my relationship with my parents and siblings, who didn’t agree with him, either. The thing of it is that he is only human, and loving his wife in the manner of Our Savior is a bit of reach for him, or for anybody!

    But after all these years I can begin to see how beautifully our marriage has transformed us – my husband really does love me and want to protect me in a way that I didn’t see when we started our life as one, and I have found time and astoundingly again that he actually was right. And when he wasn’t, something more important than being right was made stronger. It’s almost like the structure taught by Holy Mother Church made visible what I could never have seen if I had demanded things go the way I knew them to be true. It seemed risky to submit to my husband, but the fruit is good. Thanks be to God!

    1. Linda–I totally agree with you! You have so beautifully articulated what I bet many-a-good Catholic wives have felt during their marriages. May God continue to bless your union!

    2. Ditto Linda,
      So happy to read of your marriage experience. My husband and I (of 31 yrs) laugh often after saying, “God thought of everything.” If we are patient and strive to be obedient children of God the tapestry of life unfolds in ways our human minds can not possibly perceive. The key is to never stop working at knowing, loving and serving God.

  12. Thank you Msgr. Pope, a beautiful commentary on the Ephesians reading, which is one of my favorite scripture passages.

    Sadly, the last line of the passage was excluded from the reading Ephesians 5:33 {In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.}. A wife does not just submit, but is also to show respect; perhaps the two go hand in hand.

    Husbands love wives, wives respect husbands, simple statements from God – yet so, so hard to accomplish – love & respect. Loving authority and respectful submission.

    You’ve very nicely outlined a loving husband; I’d be interested in your outline of a respectful wife?

  13. After 25 years of marriage, I must say that my husband has far more “logos” and a far more intelligent, logical dispassionate way of analyzing and judging things than I do! When there is major disagreement, I must agree with other commenters above that often, it turns out that my husband was 100% correct. All too often, I look at what is right in front of my nose (the immediate situation, the emergency, making sure that something critical is dealt with immediately) and do not take into account, at all, the overall picture. Or, I frequently lack perspective.
    Far too much of the modern feminist over-emphasis on absolute “equality” turns out to be simply talking over, or screaming over, the other person so as to get one’s own way. You are 100% correct, Father, a body with 2 heads is a monster, and a body with 0 heads lacks guidance and direction.
    At this point in my life, I have concluded that if God the Father decrees, defines and ordains something in the Bible having to do with faith and/or morals, we would do well to take it at face value, and very, very seriously. In my life at least, I have found that contemptuous dismissiveness of God’s law quickly leads into some horrible places.

    1. My wife and I have been married for 17 years and we have always made shared decisions. I have never asked her to defer to me simply because I am male and she is female. Rather than two heads being a monster, we have found that it is quite possible to have a happy, healthy marriage in which one of the spouses isn’t the ultimate authority over the other. And that is even with us going through all the normal struggles of parenting and the inevitable hardships of life. It really is possible to share decision-making authority. We obviously trust one another to make little decisions, but on any decision of significance we talk about it and only proceed when we find a course that is acceptable to both of us. That requires humility, sacrifice, and selflessness on both of our parts, just as Paul called for: mutual submission.

  14. Monsignor: Please clarify that a wife is not required to submit to her husband if he wants her to commit a sin.

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