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 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: http://frpope.com/audio/recordings.php. (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.