The Word Encountered
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”(John 6:60)
“How can you take these words seriously?” This question in the Gospel is actually a complaint about Jesus’ claim that he is food and drink, but it serves as a wry comment on the passage from Ephesians heard before the Gospel. Talk about words hard to endure!
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. 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, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her … husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
“Does it shake your faith?” It probably shakes many of us. Subordination and reverence, first of all, are not prominent nouns in our contemporary lexicon of privileged words.
More troublesome yet, “wives should be submissive to their husbands.” This sounds like fingernails on a blackboard. Feels like sandpaper on wounds. Tastes like abuse. Smells like patriarchy. Submission has been the problem. Why pose it as a solution?
Clearly there is a hierarchical context for Paul’s words to the Ephesians. Christ is compared to the husband, the church to the wife. The man is the head; the woman the body. This analogy has been acclaimed by some, who want to legitimate the privileged imaging of the male for Christ. But it has been roundly condemned by others, who see it as a devaluation of women. Both positions are worth examining, but what is the real theme of the Ephesians text? “Subordination” and “reverence” are its context. All the rest is application. We must all defer to and revere one another. Then Paul provides applications that may or may not be historically bound.
But it is subordination we have trouble with, “submission.” It sticks in the craw. Why should any of us have to submit to another or put someone else first? What is worse, Paul seems to commend obedience only to the woman. He tells the wives to be submissive. What about the men?
Well, what about them? This is what Paul says: Give yourself up for her. Love your spouse as your own body, your very self. If husbands were to hold such an attitude, it would subvert all dominance and hierarchy. Paul’s is a radical statement of equality, albeit in his own contemporary context. It is self-destroying to abuse, hurt, degrade the spouse.
The point is this: there may be suggestions of male dominance in our second reading today, but this conclusion collapses from internal contradiction. Both husband and wife are to put the other first.
What if this rankles us the most? The very idea that we must give ourselves to another, defer to another! If we love each other as we propose, we assuredly must die to ourselves. The first casualty of real commitment is the imperial ego we are so reluctant to tame.
“Decide today whom you will serve.” In marriage, as in life, we serve not only each other, but our very God, who wants of us not slavery, but the free gift of our love.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University