In our Gospel reading for today, we come to the end of the “Bread of Life” discourse in John’s Gospel, and it and the other readings for today challenge us about the choices we make. In our first reading from the Book of Joshua, the Chosen People are on the brink of entering the Promised Land, and Joshua puts the choice before them: serve the Lord, or serve other gods, and the people respond, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods. For it was the Lord, our God who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey…” But as we read further into the Hebrew Scriptures, we know that the people were tempted time and time again to turn their backs on God, and gave into the temptation, and prophets had to be sent to remind them of their promise to serve the Lord.
In our Gospel reading, after the people have heard what Jesus said about being the living bread that came down from heaven, and talking to them about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, many of them decide that this goes beyond what they can accept, and they leave. And so many leave that Jesus turns to the Twelve and says, “Do you also want to leave?” And Peter (this time, rightly) replies, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” But we also know that the Twelve (not even mentioning Judas) had their own moments of misunderstanding Jesus, and letting fear take hold of them when He was arrested.
The point of all this is to recognize that there are choices put before us every day, some big and some small, and we are called to consider our choices in light of our choice to follow Jesus and to do God’s will. There are a lot of voices that call us away from God. There are many things and ideas that can easily become idols for us. And we have to be mindful of the choices we make.
There are two things that have forcefully brought this reality to mind. We have all heard of the devastating report that came out of Pennsylvania about the Church’s mishandling of abuse by priests. It is obvious that a sinful choice was made that made an idol of the security of the institution and put it above the well-being of the survivors. I have heard that some pastors have directly apologized to their congregations, and that seems to be something I could do here. I am sorry. But I know that simple apologies are not enough. I disagree with some of the solutions put out there, but it is clear that the Church has a lot of work to do to express its sorrow and repentance in concrete action.
Another thing comes to mind when we read our second reading from Ephesians, where St. Paul tells wives to be “subordinate” to their husbands, and tells husbands to love their wives as they love “their own bodies.” In 21st Century thinking, these words point to inequality. And so I always go to the first line of our reading: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And of course, this too, is problematic for many, since to be “subordinate” at all evokes images of subservience and a rationalization for oppression.
But if we look to Jesus, the way the world understands being subordinate is not how Jesus understands it. Jesus was not afraid to speak truth to power. He had a mission to accomplish, and He set out to do it. At the same time, though, He did not refuse to speak to those looked on as outside or beneath God’s consideration: Gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, lepers, the poor, the blind, the deaf, the mute and the disabled. He let Himself be interrupted, which means to me that He was “subordinate” to the needs of others. But this kind of being subordinate did not result in losing His sense of who He was. I see a connection between this kind of being subordinate to the vow of obedience that I take as a religious. The vow of obedience is above all, a willingness to listen to the needs of individuals but also the needs of the community as a whole. Jesus took a listening stance, and “for the life of the world” He did not run away from the Cross. To call people to be subordinate is not a license to oppression and injustice! It is instead a call to listen and to serve, yes, even to the point of sacrifice. In Jesus, we do not lose ourselves, but find ourselves.
May we not make idols of material wealth or domination, but trust in Jesus, who has led us out of slavery.
Fr. Phil, CP