The readings this Sunday feature two “hard sayings,” one on the Eucharist, the other on marriage. One is hard because it defies our sensibilities, the other because it is out-of-season and politically incorrect. This is a long reflection. What I present here is really two separate sermons, but both merit some attention.
The first “hard saying” is Jesus’ insistence that the Eucharist is actually His Body and Blood. He says 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 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 response: 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. He will not qualify what He 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 sticks to His teaching. He poses this question: Do you also want to leave?
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 not 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. How joyful He must be hearing your “Amen” each Sunday as you are summoned to faith: “The Body of Christ.” Yes, you stand with Christ.
Sadly, others leave. Only about a quarter of Catholics today go to Mass. Further, many others reject the dogma of the True Presence in the Holy Eucharist even though Jesus paid so dearly to proclaim it to us. In light of the recent scandals and the loss of trust, I am immensely grateful that many of the faithful can look beyond the mess and still find Jesus. He is still here and some live beautifully this old saying: “Don’t leave Jesus because of Judas.”
Is it a hard saying? Yes, but say Amen anyway! Stand with Jesus!
The second “hard saying” is hard for a different reason: it is (way) out-of-season and politically incorrect. 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. This 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 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 must be), but it exists for service.
Consider a classroom teacher. She has authority; she must, so that she can unify and keep order. However, 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 person 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.
Worldly notions of authority do affect Christians. Many harbor resentments 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 several places in the New Testament: Ephesians 5:22ff (today’s text); Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1. In all 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).
This may grate on your nerves, 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 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. Before we look at submission we might do well to look at the requirements for the husband:
Love your wife – 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.
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.
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 he 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 Mass. 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. In too many American homes, the man does not act as the spiritual leader of his household. If anyone at all is raising up the children in the Lord, it is usually the wife. 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 and not leave all the burden on their wives.
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.
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 in its entirety, 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 that 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, decay, and decay. Every organization needs headship. It needs an ultimate decision maker, 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 remember to shed your worldly notions of it 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.