Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Are You In, or Are You Out? A Call for Decision

The Readings for the 21st Week of Ordinary Time

It's an election year, and the news networks are already covering "Decision 2012."  The campaign rhetoric is getting cranked up, as each paints the upcoming vote as an ultimate choice between Good and Evil.  Last night I saw an online add for one campaign asking its supporters, "Are you in?"
The readings for this upcoming Sunday are some of the most difficult and challenging in the Lectionary.  The Church is calling us to make a decision.  There can be no more sitting on the fence.  Are we going to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Son of God, and therefore submit to his Word—even if it seems difficult to understand or accept?  Or are we going to move on and seek some other guru in life, some other bodhisattva, novelist, psychologist, sociologist, theologian, philosopher, talk show host, or politician who will tell us right from wrong and show us the way to salvation?  

In the Readings this week Jesus asks us, "Are you in, or are you out?"

1.  The First Reading is Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b:

Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,
summoning their elders, their leaders,
their judges, and their officers.
When they stood in ranks before God,
Joshua addressed all the people:
"If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

But the people answered,
"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
and among the peoples through whom we passed.
Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."
This passage comes from the climactic end of the Book of Joshua.  After years of leading the Israelites in their campaigns to take possession of the land God had promised them, Joshua gathers all the tribes at Shechem, a centrally-located city that had served as Israel's "base of operations" for most of the period of conquest.  He urges them to make a conscious decision to serve the LORD: "Decide today whom you will serve!"  There can be no vacillation with the LORD, no "on again, off again," cafeteria-style following of the God of Israel.

In words that are strikingly ironic in light of their immediate past history, and their subsequent history, the people respond, "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD!"  Actually, it was not at all "far from them" to forsake God.  They had done so all the way through the wilderness (in Numbers), they will do so all the way through Judges,  and there are hints already in Joshua that they are ready to defect from Him.  Nonetheless, on this day, challenged by Joshua, they do at least say the right thing.  

So Joshua leads them in a covenant renewal ceremony (Josh 24:25).  They probably read the covenant law given through Moses, and Joshua added some laws to it.  Covenant-making (or renewal) almost always involved sacrifices, which Joshua would have offered, and then set up a stone memorial to remind the Israelites  of their commitment (Josh 24:27).

Joshua is a type of Christ.  Their names are the same: "Jesus" is just a Greek form of the Hebrew "y'shua," English "Joshua," meaning "salvation."  Joshua is the successor of Moses.  Moses never succeeded in getting Israel to follow God and enter the Promised Land, but Joshua accomplishes both.  He is an image of a greater "Salvation" to come, who likewise will take us to a place Moses cannot.  Moses, his Law, and his covenant were good, but they cannot bring us to heaven, because they do not confer the power of God's Spirit (Rom 8:2-4).  The fact that Moses dies outside the Promised Land is a sign that there is something imperfect about the covenant he implemented (Deut 34:1-8).  Moses is not enough, we need the New Joshua who comes to offer a more perfect covenant (Heb. 8–9) by giving us his own flesh and blood.

Joshua's call for covenant renewal to Israel is analogous to what takes place at Mass every week, even on weeks when the Readings don't emphasize the point.  Every Mass is a covenant renewal ceremony, where we are called to decision, asked "Are you in, or are you out?" with respect to Jesus.  

Baptist churches are well-known for making the so-called "altar call," a challenge to decision that people accept by walking down the aisle and praying with the pastor at the altar.  Some have wished that we Catholics should have "altar calls." 

Actually, we do.  Every Mass has an altar call.  In fact, only we truly have altar calls, because only we have altars, where a sacrifice takes place.  At every Mass, we are called to decision.  When we come forward to communion, we are challenged to recommit ourselves to live in covenant with Christ for the coming week.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21:
R. (9a) Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Many are the troubles of the just one,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him;
he watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.
R.
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
This psalm remains the same from previous weeks.  What I've said before about it's characteristics as a todah or thanksgiving psalm continue to hold true.

3.  The Second Reading is Eph 5:21-32:
Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
This is a great mystery,
but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
Our Gospel will contain a "hard saying" of Jesus below, but this passage contains a "hard saying" of Paul, because it speaks of wives "submitting" to their husbands, and anyone submitting to anyone else is contrary to contemporary cultural sensibilities.  In fact, the Lectionary provides a shorter reading that omits the "offensive" parts of Ephesians.  I would strongly discourage taking the shorter reading, because the homilist should address this "controversial" passage head on and explain it.

The problem in this passage is not with what Paul says, but with us and our attitudes.  We are not fully converted to Christ, and we continue to think in a worldly way.  Anyone who hears or interprets this passage of Ephesians with an unconverted or half-converted mentality is going to stumble over it.

Our unconverted mind thinks that submitting to another person implies that we are somehow less valuable or important than that other person, when in fact we know that Christ submitted himself to the will of God the Father (Phil. 2:5-11; Matt 26:39), even though he is equal to the Father (Jn 10:30; 14:9), "God from God, Light from Light, etc."  In fact, he also submitted himself to his parents (Lk 2:51) though he was in fact their God!  Following Christ, many saints, like St. André Bessette of Montreal, submitted meekly all their lives to superiors who were their spiritual inferiors.

On the other hand, our unconverted mind also thinks that leadership involves bossing others around, or self-aggrandizement.  We fail to internalize what Jesus taught us about what it means to be a leader:
Luke 22:24   A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  26 But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.  27 For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
To the mind converted to Christ, leadership is a form of service.

It is true that St. Paul teaches a distinction of roles within the marriage, and there is no legitimate exegetical way to "steam roll" that distinction out of the passage.  St. Paul does call the husband "the head" of the wife, which implies a role of leadership within the family.  But that is immediately qualified by being interpreted in light of Christ, and his example of headship or leadership.

Christ did not lead by imposing his will, taking advantage of others for his own benefit, or otherwise acting in his own self-interest.  The heart of leadership is the acceptance of responsibility to accomplish what needs to be done for the common good.  Jesus took on this responsibility.  He did not order his disciples to the cross--he went Himself.  He continued to lead even when they no longer followed.  He gave up his life for them on the cross, and that's clearly the model St. Paul holds out as an example for husbands.

Jesus never applied force to compel his disciples to follow him.  The only force was the power of his character and example.  Likewise we see in this passage from Ephesians that husbands are not once called to "make their wives submit," but St. Paul calls for wives to follow their husbands voluntarily: the Greek of v. 21 is literally "submit yourselves."

Modeled on the example of Christ the servant-leader of the Church, husbands should take responsibility for the well-being—physical, emotional, spiritual—of the whole family unit, using the strength God has given them to protect, support, and encourage their wives and children.  Especially in spiritual matters in its most important for fathers to lead by example, because several studies have shown—for better or for worse—that the father's example is a much stronger predictor of the religious practice of the children than their mother's.

Even the most joyful of human activities need some sort of leadership for the common good.  The example I like to use is ballroom dancing.  Dancing is fun, we do it for enjoyment, and no one feels oppressed.  Yet guys traditionally lead, even though they are not the main attraction.  They are supposed to keep time and provide a "frame" to display the beauty of their partner.  Marriage ought to be like dancing.  It also takes practice, commitment, and gets better with time when both partners are "all in."

Ephesians 5 is not marriage counseling, and every problem that might arise in marriage is not solved in this passage.  It presents an ideal toward which two fully converted Christian partners should strive.  When lived well, it is like a beautiful waltz, in which each partner has full confidence in each other.  In contemporary culture we are constantly urged to adopt some other model as the ideal of marriage, so Eph 5 is a "sign of contradiction," a challenge to the way we understand submission, sacrifice, leadership; and a call to be converted.

4.  The Gospel is John 6:60-69:
Many of Jesus' disciples who were listening said,
"This saying is hard; who can accept it?"
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, "Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe."
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said,
"For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father."

As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?"
Simon Peter answered him, "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."
Last week we observed that Jesus became very graphic when describing the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood.  He said, "Whoever chews (Gk. trogo) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (John 6:54).  This is too much for most of the Jews to accept, so they abandon Jesus.

Many wonder how Jesus can command his flesh and blood to be eaten, when the Old Testament forbid the consumption of blood.  Brant Pitre points out that the blood of animals was forbidden because "the life is in the blood" (Lev 17:11).  God did not want his people to share in animal life.  But now, the same principle is the reason for the command to consume Christ's blood: "the life is in the blood."  The life that is in Christ's blood is divine life, and God does want us to share in that!

Others take Jesus' words, "the flesh is of no avail," (Jn 6:63) to deny the importance of the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic bread into the Body of Christ.  Nothing "fleshly" is important, they say, so the flesh of Christ in the Eucharist does nothing to save us. 

But Jesus did not say "my flesh is of no avail," but "the flesh is of no avail."

"The flesh" refers to fallen human nature, as in John 8:15: "You judge according to the flesh ..." or Rom 7:18: "For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh ..."

But "my flesh" refers to the salvific incarnation of Jesus Christ, that is, his body: "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (Jn 6:51).

"The flesh", that is, fallen human nature, does nothing for us; but the Body of Christ has saving power.

Following Christ requires making a decision to believe and trust him even in situations that do not immediately make sense, and even with respect to teachings that cut across the grain of our personal sensibilities and our cultural norms.  Jesus does not compel us to follow him.  Just as Joshua gave the Israelites the option of "opting out" of the covenant in Josh 24, so Jesus puts the question to the disciples: "Do you also want to leave?"

There's no physical force keeping you in the Catholic Church.  If you think you know better than Jesus, the Apostles, the Scriptures, the Church, and the Pope, you can go to any number of religious groups that do things differently.  

Every Sunday in Mass we have an altar call termed "communion."  We walk down the aisle, and the priest holds up an item in front of us that for all the world looks like a plain circular wafer of bread, and he challenges us: "The Body of Christ!"  This is an implied question: "Do you believe this is the Body of Christ, although it does not look like it, simply because the Son of God says it is?"

And that's the moment of decision for us.  We need to be "all in" or "all out."  Are we going to submit to Christ "in all things" or in only those things that seem acceptable to us?

As for me and my house, our response this week will be "Amen," that is, "I believe."  Because:
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius
Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius 
I believe whatever the Son of God says
Nothing can be truer than this Word of Truth. (St. Thomas Aquinas)


5 comments:

Vince C said...

Excellent. I've studied this Sundays readings in depth this week, and still was able to glean plenty of fruit from your reflections. Thanks and God bless.

JohnE said...

"Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life."

I wonder if you could expound more on these verses, as it is a common objection from non-Catholic Christians against the pretty explicit words of Jesus earlier in John 6:53. Or at least correct where I may be veering off the rails of Catholic teaching in my following comments:

My thought is that "the flesh" could also be taken in a general sense. Rather than comparing "my flesh" with "fallen flesh", could Jesus be telling the disciples that his flesh that he will give is not a chunk of lifeless meat cut off from his body, but his entire self including both his body and his spirit? A piece of lifeless flesh in itself is of no avail, as if you could begin right at that moment to begin to eat Jesus, but it must be his entire self which he will give later when he institutes the Eucharist.

Today, as we receive Jesus under the appearances of bread and wine, could "the flesh is of no avail" also mean that we should try not to get hung up on the outward appearances of his body as bread and wine. If it was only his flesh he was giving under the appearances of bread and wine (and not his spirit and entire self also) then would it really be any different for us than eating bread and wine? Rather, he is indeed giving his entire self -- body, blood, soul and divinity.

Michael Dunn said...

The following passage is a stumbling block for a lot of readers, and I can honestly say it took significant reflection for its meaning to become clear:

‘It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.’

A rewording that makes its meaning clear (to me, anyway):
‘It is the spirit that provides [divine] life, while [our fallen, human nature] is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit (i.e., come from God and thus are divinely-inspired) and [provide the means for eternal] life [with God].

To underscore this interpretation, consider Jesus’ follow-up statement:
"For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father."

In the above Jesus is restating Himself in clearer terms, just in reverse order:
‘no one can come to me’ = ‘the flesh is of no avail’,
‘unless it is granted by my Father’ = ‘it is the Spirit that gives Life’.
The Spirit must first be present for the person to be receptive to divinely-inspired truths -> even when heard first-hand by the Son of God Himself!

And what divinely-inspire truth did Jesus reveal that day?
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.’

John Bergsma said...

I did discuss these verses in my reflection. I said:
Others take Jesus' words, "the flesh is of no avail," (Jn 6:63) to deny the importance of the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic bread into the Body of Christ. Nothing "fleshly" is important, they say, so the flesh of Christ in the Eucharist does nothing to save us.

But Jesus did not say "my flesh is of no avail," but "the flesh is of no avail."

"The flesh" refers to fallen human nature, as in John 8:15: "You judge according to the flesh ..." or Rom 7:18: "For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh ..."

But "my flesh" refers to the salvific incarnation of Jesus Christ, that is, his body: "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (Jn 6:51).

"The flesh", that is, fallen human nature, does nothing for us; but the Body of Christ has saving power.

heidi gresko said...

of course "flesh" can not be of no avail or the Word becoming Flesh would be of no avail!
Christ was clearly trying (once again in the Gospel of John) to get his listeners to think sacramentally. He was attempting a mystagogy.