21st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Here’s a recipe I found for a happy marriage:
Add four cups of love and two cups of patience and mix thoroughly with 1 litre of faith. Blend the mixture with two tablespoons of tenderness, 1 tablespoon of kindness, and 1 teaspoon of understanding. Add three cups of friendship and two tablespoons of hope. Sprinkle the entire mixture abundantly with laughter. Garnish with hugs and kisses. Can be served on a daily basis with generous helpings. What a beautiful image of what a real marriage entails!
Indeed, our second reading today from Ephesians, piggy-backing on the excerpt that we proclaimed two weeks ago in which we looked at how to be imitators of God, explores, from a theological vantage point, how husbands and wives are called relate to one another. But it goes further than that. It extends its message to every Christian and invites each one of us to consider how all of our relationships need to be based on and ought to be motivated by our deep love, respect and regard for Christ Jesus, our Savior. Ephesians 4:21 sums it up best: “Be subject to one another, out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 4:21)
Implicit in this statement is a mutuality that needs to exist and to find an anchor in every life-giving human relationship. Mutuality means that I can only receive what I myself am willing to give. I can only grow and thrive in my relationship to the extent that I’m willing to be the vehicle for growth and thriving in my significant other’s life. I can only expect to be treated by another the way in which I myself treat others. I can only serve the needs of others if I’m attentive to and, freely and without reservation, seek to allow the other to express his/her wishes and desires to me, knowing that they can trust me not to run away or to give only lip-service to their needs.
It’s the lack of mutuality in many relationships that cause them to become strained and sometimes break apart.

It’s the lack of mutuality in many relationships that often points to a bigger problem deep-down: one’s own selfishness, individualism, or lack of willingness to see one’s expressed feelings and actions, from the other’s point of view. It’s such lack of mutuality which can lead to the tendency to avoid making any permanent or lasting decisions regarding one’s life relationships.
Pope Francis wrote about this in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on love in the family, entitled Amoris Laetitia (the joy of love) in 2016. In that reflection, the pope pointed out the dangers of today’s fast-paced life, and the stresses associated with managing work and home, as “cultural factors” that could lead to “suspicion, fear of commitment, self-centeredness and arrogance in us” and result in our not wanting to enter into any permanent relationships with any one. (AL 33) Indeed, the pope noted that many people have “a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals.” (AL 34)
And while Pope Francis recognizes the great value of having freedom of choice in helping us to plan our lives and to make the most use of our ourselves and our unique talents and skills, he notes that “such freedom, if it lacks noble goals or a personal discipline,” can easily degenerate “into an inability to give oneself generously to others.” Indeed, he notes that, “in many countries where the number of marriages is decreasing, more and more people are choosing to live alone or simply to spend time together without cohabiting.” (AL 33)
When does my freedom of choice become an obstacle to my entering into life-giving and life-sustaining and transformative relationships? When does my freedom of choice really mean only looking out for myself and discounting the needs, hopes, and desires of another? When does my freedom of choice become an enslavement to my own personal advancement and a trampling underfoot of those who are less powerful who may stand in my way, or who have less opportunities than myself? This is what the Author of the letter to the Ephesians is asking us to consider as baptized members of the Body of Christ and as a collective People of God.
If mutuality is the underpinning for all that the author of the letter to the Ephesians says about husbands and wives too, how does that affect our interpretation of what Paul is saying to today’s modern couples? To begin with, we have to remember that like all of us, the person who wrote the letter to the Ephesians in the name of Paul, used his knowledge and relationship with Christ as well as his own personal understanding and acceptance of the societal conventions that existed at the time of its writing, as a skeletal structure upon which to frame his theological treatment of marriage.
We know in the Greco-Roman world, that everyone in a household had assigned duties and responsibilities based on gender. Dating back to the time of Aristotle, a patriarchal society placed males over females, as a way to enable every household to function efficiently and without strife. That’s why we heard the verse in today’s passage which said, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is head of the Church.” (Eph 5:22-23) The word ‘head’ however, is better translated in the Greek as ‘origin’ or ‘source.’ So, a better reading of the original verse would be, “for the husband is the origin of the wife, just as Christ is the origin of the church.” And interestingly, the verb, ‘to be subject’ doesn’t appear in most ancient texts of this letter. The more ancient versions read, “wives, to your husbands, as to the Lord.” It’s suspected by scripture scholars that the subjecting verb may have been added to the letter by church leadership at the end of the first century because many Christian women and slaves, at that time, exercised a lot more freedom than their counterparts in other religious faiths in the Greco-Roman world and thus may have been seen as a threat to the larger acceptance of cultural norms of household management. To avoid persecution, then, it’s possible that the church leadership tried to impose the same cultural norms on Christian households as those that existed in Greco-Roman households.

More importantly for all of us, it was never the author’s intent to universalize Greco-Roman patriarchal understandings of the duties and obligations of husbands and wives for all time. No, most women would laugh at being told today to be subject to their husbands. They’d probably say, only if my husband is subject to me, as well!
Rather, the more radical reading of today’s scripture always brings the mutuality of husband and wife back to a consideration of emulating Christ’s relationship to the Church. Jesus gave his very life’s blood for the Church! He loved her unconditionally, not only in word but in action! He’d rather die than be apart from her! He tenderly cared for the church and called her to be holy! He forgave all sins without ever asking for our repentance first. Our understanding of marriage today then, is based on this self-giving, effusive, all-empowering, sacrificial, holy love of Christ for all of us who are the Church! You may think to yourself….Well, my marriage has been working ok for all these years. No need to rock the boat! To that I say, mediocrity and complacency are not Christian virtues!
No, Pope Francis encourages us in Amoris Laetitia to “keep an open mind.” He says, “Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both.” He goes on to say, “The unity that we seek is not uniformity, but a “unity in diversity”, or “reconciled diversity!” (AL 139) If all marriages embraced this Christ-inspired vision of mutual love and joy in the reconciled diversity of two becoming one flesh, what a powerful witness all Christian couples would be of Christ’ love, living and active in our church, society, and our world and in turn, to future generations of believers!


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