Orbiting Dicta

21st Sunday of the Year: Finding Harmony

Much can happen in a week, especially if you are trying to follow it all at a great distance on the radio, TV, or all the avenues of social media. The world is in fact “mediated” to us through many channels other than our own experience, but we are affected even so, whether by the fall of Kabul, the disaster in Haiti, political infighting, or Storm Fred. And there’s little we can do about any of it short of prayer and that check to UNICEF.

One thing seems clear: the world is sorely lacking in that wonderful gift that goes back to Eden garden: harmony–  social harmony and harmony with the natural order.

Today’s readings point us in a different direction. The word scripture uses for it, so widely misunderstood, is

Joshua 24:1-2a,15-17,18b
Eph 5:21-32
John 6:60-69

“subjection.” The lesson begins with the story of Joshua shortly after the Hebrews cross the Jordan River into the Land of Promise.

Here, the most fundamental value of all was being endorsed by all the tribes of Israel after Moses had died — faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and especially Moses was at stake. It would have been easy and even profitable for the Hebrews to settle in among their pagan neighbors and adopt their way of life, including their religious practices. And in fact, for hundreds of years, the judges and prophets had to steer Israel away from the temptations of idolatry to serve the one true God, even at the risk of prosperity and peace. These same prophets demanded that in the name of God the rights and welfare of the poor and oppressed were to be held sacred. Neither money nor power were to be deciding factors. Being subject to God’s Law was the first and greatest obligation. “As for me and my household,” Joshua says, “we will serve the Lord.”

The same kind of decision must have faced the early Christians. Echoes of the dilemma confronted by the community that was associated with the Apostle John are found in today’s gospel, which finishes the lengthy discourse on the eucharist that we began reading weeks ago. Will the followers of Jesus remain faithful to his teaching and promises or fall away when faced with the difficult consequences of that choice?

The dilemma surrounding values is especially sharp in the second reading, taken from the Letter written by Paul or one of his disciples to the Christians at Ephesus. Many people today, especially women, tend to cringe at the language of submission and the value system that it implies. It certainly bothers me. On one hand, it is Scripture and, we believe, inspired by God. On the other, it seems to endorse values that women and men today find repellent — subjection, submission, and deferment.

I looked a little further in the Christian scriptures to see where else such injunctions occur, and I found a number of them — almost all of them in the writings of St. Paul. And I also found a clue as to what was going on in his mind.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the writer advises them to defer [‘hypotasso’ = be subject] to one another in everything. The author, and it may have been St. Paul himself, goes on to say that wives should be “submissive [‘hypotasso’] to their husbands in everything” [Eph. 5:22].

The word he uses, hypotasso in Greek, means to subordinate something or someone, to obey or be under obedience, to place someone or even oneself in subjection. It also means to arrange something in an orderly manner. We find Paul using the same word in all sorts of ways — in regard to creation itself, which is subject to futility [Rom 8:20]. The spirits of prophets, he says, are subject to prophets themselves [1 Cor 14: 32]. In the name of good order, he tells the Corinthian Christians that “women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate [‘hypotasso’], as even the law says” [1 Cor 14: 34], which is a strange thing for Paul to say — which law? But in the Pastoral epistles, the author, almost surely one of Paul’s disciples, likewise says that children should be subject to their father [1 Tim 3:4], wives to their husbands [Tit 2:5], and slaves to their masters [Tit 2:9]. In the Epistle to Titus, he also says that “everyone should be subject to those in authority,” including the Emperor [Tit 3:1 = Rom 13:1]. The First Epistle of Peter similarly maintains that servants should be subject to their masters and wives to their husbands [1 Pet 2:18, 32:5].

We also find the notion of subjection in the Gospel of Luke, where we read that after his adventure in the Temple as a young boy, Jesus returned to Nazareth and “was subject [‘hypotasso’ again!] to Mary and Joseph” [Luke 2:51]. In a word, he obeyed them. In all these instances, the same tricky word is used.

What lies behind all these references is a notion of harmony, of peaceful order. Or the opposite: the chaos that results when people or creation itself is no longer subject to God’s rule. But it’s important to recognize that social structures change, and with that new values emerge that might well conflict with former expressions. Exactly the same word is used of relations between servants and masters, slaves and masters, and imperial subjects and the emperor and his appointed rulers. But no one today would defend slavery because of these passages in St. Paul, or argue that the best form of government is an empire governed by an absolute dictator. Just the opposite, in fact. But it took Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, a long time to reject the institution of slavery. Bishops and priests and sisters had slaves in this country right up to the Civil War.

So when it comes to the relationships of wives and husbands, it is very important that we do not read first-century values into today’s situation. The author of Ephesians goes on to say, on the other hand, “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” [Eph 5:28].

The first lines of today’s second reading are the most important: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, be at peace with each other and Creation itself. The word here for “reverence,” by the way, is ‘phobos’ — fear, a much stronger statement. What the writer is reminding us is not that we should be afraid of Jesus, but we should be very much afraid of falling away from his teaching and example. In the gospel passage, Peter says it all: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” [John 6:69].