23 Aug 2015
It’s one of the most hated Scripture passages there is: “Wives, be submissive to your husbands.” It just doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, and for good reasons. When we hear about “submission,” we usually think of somebody being beaten down or abused. We think of somebody made to deny their human dignity.
When you think about all the women’s struggles to be recognized as equal in dignity to men; when you think about the reality that many women have been abused by men (and continue to be), it’s no wonder the idea of wives being submissive to their husbands is so hated and outright rejected by people today—both men and women, inside the Church and outside the Church.
And yet, here it is in Scripture—the Word of God; we can’t just ignore it. We can’t just turn our backs on the Word of God because it sounds screwed up to us. Even if the crowds in the gospel did that to Jesus, we can’t. We can’t say to Jesus, “You’re crazy! I’m not listening to what you have to say.” To do that is “to throw out the baby with the dirty bath water.” It’s to look at the ugliness of an oyster and throw out the pearl that’s inside it.
It goes without saying that we never submit ourselves to people who hurt us and tear us down. We should never do that, out of respect for our own dignity as sons and daughters of God. We do not put up with abuse in any circumstance—not in our friendships, in our work relationships, and certainly not in marriage. So what is St Paul saying here in this very troubling passage?
Well, the passage that goes with “wives, be submissive to your husbands,” is: “Husbands, love your wives.” Those two passages go together. And the word “love” here refers to the kind of love which says: “I’m going to put you ahead of me. I’m going to sacrifice and give myself in whatever way I can for your good because I love you.” Of course, that’s the love of our God—most especially Jesus on the Cross and in the Eucharist.
But, on the Cross, we see a man completely submissive. On the Cross we see the bridegroom of humanity stripped naked, hung out, defenseless, and vulnerable. Isn’t that fantastic! St. Paul says: “Husbands, love your wives;” in other words, “Husbands, submit yourselves to your wife and to her well-being.” And we’re talking about something more than simply husbands and wives—we’re talking about all of us in our friendships, in our relationships with coworkers and, most especially, in our relationship with God.
There’s a beautiful and important interplay here between “love” and “submission.” They’re the same thing. Self-giving love and submission are the same thing: that’s the pearl of wisdom hidden in this passage about wives submitting themselves to their husbands. St Paul isn’t saying, “Submit yourself to someone who will degrade you and dishonor;” no, he’s saying (to each of us—men and women alike), “Submit yourself to others who honestly love you and submit themselves to you in return.
Of course, this mutual submission, mutual vulnerability, mutual sharing and trust in others is the heart of what we call “love” and “friendship.” If we don’t know how to be submissive and trust others with our heart, then we don’t know how to love and be loved in return. It’s interesting that this most hated Scripture passage is also one of the most important ones for us as men and women made in the image of God who is love. To live our full potential, we have to learn how to be submissive and trustful.
But we can do that. We can submit ourselves to those who love us. Those are the people we want to submit ourselves to. And, you know, we submit ourselves to other people all the time.
For example, every time we tell a friend something secret in our hearts, we submit ourselves; we make ourselves vulnerable and weak when we do that. We open ourselves up to ridicule and shame. But we’re submitting ourselves to them in the hopes that they’ll love us in return with their own self-gift and sharing.
Or just think of various mentors in your life. Maybe you play sports and you trust your coach to teach you the right way. You’re submitting yourself to someone in the hopes that that he or she will do what’s in your best interest as a player. You trust the coach and, in that, a relationship of a kind is formed built on trust.
Without knowing it, we submit ourselves to others all the time; whether in marriage or friendship, or out on the football field or in the office, or in our relationship with God. We submit ourselves to others all the time. And that’s right. We should submit ourselves to others . . . but to those who really and truly love us.
And at the top of that list is God; our selfless, sacrificial, passionate God who died on the Cross so that we could live; God who pours himself out in the Eucharist for our benefit. If we can’t trust God and be submissive to God who loves us in more ways than we can count, who else could we possibly submit ourselves to? But we can trust him, we can love him and share our hearts and minds and bodies with him because, first and always, he loves us—completely and without reservation. He submits himself to us.
From this most hated passage of Scripture, there is a hidden pearl; something we can keep close to our hearts. And the pearl is this: We can and we should submit ourselves to those who love us in return. And at the top of that list is our loving and faithful God.