26 Aug 2018
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
We heard one of the most reviled and hated Scripture passages there is: “Wives, be submissive to your husbands.” I mean, it just reeks of male domination, inequality, loss of dignity for women and, to be honest, it brings to mind spousal abuse, or just abuse in general. And none of these things is good. If “submission” means loss of basic human dignity and respect, then we ought to run from it; “submission” should be reviled and hated.
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—by both women and men, inside and outside the Church.
And when you broaden this idea of being submissive to include other relationships beyond husbands and wives—friendship, co-workers and bosses, Church and parishioners—we see that people can be taken advantage of and hurt quite easily. One of the factors beyond the clergy abuse we hear about is that some priests (and I hesitate to call them “priests”) took advantage of the fact that they were in positions of authority; they were the “domineering husband,” they were “over” somebody else, and made somebody else “submit” to them.
If “submission” means loss of basic human dignity, then we should run from it; “submission” should be reviled and hated, and denounced as a societal evil. But...here it is in Sacred Scripture: “Wives, be submissive to your husbands.” Even if it’s not in the Gospel, it’s still in Scripture, it’s still the Word of God. So we can’t just ignore it.
We can’t just turn our backs on the Word because it sounds screwed up to us. Even if the crowds in the gospel did that to Jesus...we can’t, or we shouldn’t. We can’t say to Jesus, “This is crazy! This ‘submission’ garbage...I’m not listening to what you have to say.” We can’t do that because it’s like “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” It’s like throwing away an ugly oyster...with the pearl that’s inside.
It goes without saying that we never submit ourselves to people who hurt us and tear us down. That is not scriptural—contrary to what some Evangelical Christians think. 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, certainly not in marriage, nor our relationships with the Church—whether those are other parishioners, neighbors, or the clergy. We never submit ourselves to people who hurt us and trample on our basic human dignity.
So what is St Paul saying here in his letter to the Ephesians? Well, the passage that’s the flip side of “wives, be submissive to your husbands,” is: “Husbands, love your wives.” Those two passages go together; they cannot be taken apart. 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.” And our minds should immediately go the Cross.
On the Cross, we see a man completely submissive. On the Cross we see the bridegroom, the “husband of humanity” stripped naked, hung out, defenseless, and vulnerable. St. Paul says: “Husbands, love your wives;” in other words, “Husbands, submit yourselves to your wife and to her well-being.” But we’re talking about something more than simply husbands and wives; we’re talking about all of us in all our relationships and, most especially, in our relationship with God.
There’s a significant connection 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 “ugly” passage about submission. St Paul isn’t saying, “Submit yourself to someone who will degrade you and dishonor you;” no, he’s saying (to each of us—men and women alike), “Submit yourself to others who honestly love you and who submit themselves to you and to your good in return.
This is why St. Paul says right off the bat, “Be subordinate to...one another.” This mutual submission, mutual vulnerability, mutual sharing and trust in others is at 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 to be loved in return. It can’t be overstated enough that this most hated, reviled, detested Scripture passage is also one of the most critical 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 of “the other.”
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 that friend in the hopes that they’ll love us in return with their own self-gift and sharing.
Or just think of the 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 only to those whom we trust, and who actually love us and respect our basic human dignity.
And at the top of that list of people 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 can 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.
And if we forget that, just think of what and whom we hold in ours hands at communion—that little Host, our God who lets himself be put into our hands and broken. At the center of this thing we call “the Mass” is sacrifice—self-giving, other-centered submission for the good of another. And what more perfect gift can we bring to the altar than our own submission to him, our Bridegroom, who wants nothing more than for us to have life, life in abundance today and always.
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 friend, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.