Friday, August 24, 2018

Does This Shock You? The 21st Sunday in OT

There are many times in life when circumstances force you into making a decision that has lasting consequences.  There are times when you have to decide whether to accept an offer on your house or turn it down, whether to take a job or decline it, whether to propose marriage—or accept a proposal—or enter religious life.  Often we don’t want to decide, yet circumstances force us, and even not deciding will constitute a kind of decision.  These are stressful times, times of crisis.  The readings for this Sunday likewise put us in the position of having to decide whether we are going to trust God and his Word, or cast off on our own, trying to find salvation somewhere else.  

Our First Reading recounts Joshua putting the people of Israel into a "crisis" in which they must decide to follow the LORD:

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 First Reading recalls a crisis moment in Israel’s history when Joshua gives his “come to Jesus” pep talk.  In the course of the Book of Joshua, Moses’ young successor has lead the people of Israel to victory after victory and helped them secure the land—at least initially—under their control.   

But he knows their faith is not strong, and they fight with a constant internal tendency to drift back to the paganism they had practiced in Egypt.  So here, near the end of his life, Joshua gathers Israel to gather at Shechem (which later became the sacred city of the Samaritans, descendants of the northern tribes), a centrally-located proto-capital in the hill country of Manasseh, and calls them all to covenant renewal.   

Much like a priest at the Easter Mass calling all the faithful consciously to renew their Baptismal vows, Joshua calls the people of Israel consciously to commit to the covenant Moses established with their fathers at Sinai. But if not, they should openly walk away and consistently serve other gods whom they may choose.  Joshua gives them both options, and just urges them to be sincere and consistent: if you choose the LORD, then worship him; if you choose other gods, then worship them.   

The only option Joshua doesn't give them—because it is the worst option—is to say they are going to worship the LORD, but actually worship other gods.  That is hypocrisy, and God would rather have a sincere pagan than a hypocritical Israelite.  I mean that in all seriousness and believe it is a Scriptural teaching: the state of the man is better who sincerely worships false gods, than the man who acknowledges the true God with his lips but worships a false god in his actions.   

Arguably, the most important thing is consistency of our walk with our talk.  I believe those who act consistently according to their beliefs will discover if their beliefs are false or not, and thus be led to truth if they are in falsehood; but the person whose actions are inconsistent with their beliefs will never find the truth, because they are already living a lie.  Sadly, Israel’s history would show a constant tendency toward inconsistency: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isa 29:13).

The response of the people is almost comical: “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the worship of other gods!”  If one reads the biblical narrative previous and subsequent to this passage of Joshua, one knows that in fact it is not far from them but very near to them to forsake the LORD for the worship of other gods!  They did it from Egypt to the Promised Land, and will continue do it after Joshua is dead!  In fact, they currently have idols of other deities that they have been carrying around since Egypt, such that Joshua must later urge them to “put away the foreign gods (=idols) that are among you …” Josh 24:23.

Sadly, though, how often are we not like the Israelites, professing Christ and the Catholic faith with our lips, while meanwhile trying to create space in our private lives to worship the gods of money, pleasure, and power? In ancient times they called this trio Pluto, Venus, and Mars—now the names are different but the gods are the same.

Our 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 is a popular “Eucharistic psalm”, of course, because the Eucharist is the “goodness of the LORD” that we actually “taste.”  It is also a todah or Thanksgiving psalm, which David composed to give thanks to God for delivering him from the hand of King Abimelech of the Philistines.  We see and subtle and oft-overlooked mystical anticipation of the passion in this psalm: “he watches over all his bones, not one of them shall be broken”, which applies to John 19:36, even though we usually think first of the regulations for the Passover lamb in Exod 12:46. 

The Psalm praises the LORD for answering the cry of the poor and oppressed, and assures us that the LORD is close to such as suffer in this way.  But there is a paradox here: if God is close to the poor and broken-hearted, why are they poor and broken-hearted in the first place?  This is the tension of the life lived in communion with God: on the one hand, God is a savior; on the other hand, he seems to let us get into trouble in order to show his power by saving us.  This is a mystery, but I suspect the ultimate answer is that relationships need to be tested to grow in intimacy, and the weathering of trials together gives covenantal partners the opportunity to demonstrate their faithful love.  This is the message of the Book of Job, for example. 

In the context of this Mass, Psalm 34 tells us that God’s goodness is expressed to us in the Eucharist, and indeed, the Eucharist is one of the primary ways that God maintains his “closeness” to us during times of brokenheartedness and distress.  Isn’t it true that some of our most powerful communions are received during times of suffering?  God made us not for pleasure, but for intimacy with him, and this is all but impossible without the experience of suffering.

Our Second Reading is Eph 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32:

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.

St. Paul teaches here that there is an order of authority in marriage, and that the husband is “head of the wife”, meaning leader of the marriage and the family that results from it, and the wife should respect that leadership role and defer to it. 

Of course, to say this is the quintessence of political incorrectness in the modern climate, which cannot even bring itself to admit that there are physical differences between men and women, much less spiritual differences, different social roles, or different roles within marriage.

The major reason we resist embracing this teaching of St. Paul as divine revelation is that have not purified our notion of what it means to exercise authority.  Jesus teaches his disciples specifically about this at the Last Supper.  What he says applies first of all to their apostolic ministry, perpetuated by their successors the bishops, but it also applies to every situation of leadership in the body of the Church, including within the family:

Luke 22:25 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. 

Here Jesus teaches that positions of authority in the Kingdom of God—which is manifest visibly by the Church Militant—are always and only positions of service, meant to be exercised for the good of those who are lead.  Moreover, the leader or one in authority must set an example of humility and service.  This is often called today “servant leadership.”  It does not mean that the leader has no authority, and is just a mat for everyone to walk over.  Rather, it means that the leader or one in authority must always exercise that leadership for the good of those who have been entrusted to him.

It is always a sin for a leader in the Church to use his leadership for selfish ends.  I repeat: It is always a sin to use one’s authority for one’s self-interest.  The scandals among clergy, bishops, and even cardinals that have broken over the Church in the US once again in the past month had driven this home.  They provide a classic example of the misuse of authority for selfishness.  This is demonic, even Satanic.  I am not being flippant or hyperbolic in using those terms, but I am doing so in full theological reflection.  At the heart of Satan’s rebellion against God is his refusal to use the authority given him as chief of the archangels to serve lowly humanity.  In Satan’s logic, service should flow from follower to leader, from the “lesser” to the “greater.”  It is completely contrary to Satan’s sense of his dignity to do what God did, for example, and take flesh as a baby, and entrust Himself to the care of human beings with all their limitations.  So the notion of authority as being for the benefit of the leader is quintessentially Satanic: it is Satan’s view of authority, and how he runs his demonic “lower-archy.”

Bringing this back to the marriage relationship: St. Paul acknowledges the husband as head of the wife. But he goes on in the remainder of this passage to purify and redefine what it means to exercise headship in marriage and family.  This role demands of the husband, says St. Paul, that he be conformed to Christ, who loved his Bride, the Church, even to the point of death.  It is unimaginable that Christ would be an abusive husband of the Church, or that he would use his authority over the Church to gain some kind of personal pleasure at the expense of his Bride.  If that is unthinkable for the bond of Christ and his Church, it also should be unthinkable in Christian marriage. 

Part of masculinity is to learn to lead, and leadership is self-sacrificial at its essence.  It is self-evident that most women want, as a spouse, someone that they can respect and admire, and especially someone that they can trust and to whom they can entrust themselves without fear.  This is necessary, because by the very nature of our embodied condition, the bearing of children is a delicate and arduous process that leaves mother and child in a state of vulnerability, leaving only the husband at times to provide, care for, protect, nurture the family unit.  We know this deep down in our nature, which is why we respond well to those icons of the Holy Family that show the child Jesus enveloped in the arms of his mother, but then mother and child enveloped in the arms of St. Joseph.  We look and say: yes, this is the proper expression of masculinity and femininity, of the mystery of complementarity in the service of Life and Salvation.

Returning to St. Paul’s teaching on marriage, we can conclude that no proper exegesis of this passage can ever lead to some kind of justification of “male superiority” or chauvinism, because the moment one thinks along those lines, one is entering the path of Satan’s logic of leadership.  Arguably, St. Paul gives the harder task here to husbands, as it is easier to submit to another person than to live up to the demands of self-sacrificial love in conformity with Christ, in the image of his gift of self for the Church. 

St. Paul concludes this reflection by calling marriage a great “mystery”, which in Latin is a “sacramentum” or sacrament.  It is ironic that, as a Protestant committed to sola scriptura, I used to deny that marriage was a sacrament—since it is the only one of the sacraments that is explicitly named as such in the scriptura.  But Paul is, obviously, correct in calling a mystery and a sacrament, and more correct than we often realize, because marriage is a polyvalent icon that contains the whole mystery of salvation within it.  In the union of two persons whose love becomes embodied in a third, we see a quasi-incarnation of the Holy Trinity itself.  And in the self-sacrificial love of the husband that fructifies the bride, we see an image of the salvation Christ effected through his Passion.  And this only scratches the surface, which is why heaven, our final state of communion with God, is portrayed in Revelation 20-22 as a nuptial feast.

Our Gospel is  Jn 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."

We had one “hard saying,” difficult to accept in our Second Reading—that the “husband is head of the wife.”  Now in our Gospel Reading, we have another hard saying, that “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”  Actually, the “hard saying” being referred to here is from last week’s Reading, and no we are witnessing the reaction to Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching. 

Of course, there is a very close connection between the Eucharist and Marriage, since both involve the gift of bodies: the gift of the Body of Christ to his Bride the Church, and the gift of the husband’s body to his bride, which brings new life.  So we call the Eucharist the “Wedding Feast of the Lamb”, and first communicants dress as if for their own weddings, girls in white dresses and veils, boys in tuxedos. 

Our Gospel passage once again uses the Greek word for “murmuring” which is used in the Septuagint for the “murmuring” in the wilderness against Moses in Exodus and Numbers.

Jesus responds to the shocked reaction of his disciples by saying, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is to no avail.” 

This verse is commonly used by Protestant evangelists to argue against the doctrine of the Real Presence.  “See,” they say, “Jesus wasn’t talk about real flesh and blood all along, because the ‘flesh is to no avail.’  All his language was spiritual and metaphorical, because the Spirit gives life.”  They go on to argue that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is at most a spiritual presence, and no change comes over the Eucharistic elements when they are consecrated, but they remain simply bread and wine. 

The problem here is a misinterpretation of the term “flesh.”

The fundamental point such persons fail to realize is that Jesus says “the flesh is of no avail,” not “my flesh is of no avail”; and there is a huge difference between “my flesh” and “the flesh”!  In the writings of John and Paul, “the flesh” is a phrase usually used to refer to fallen human nature apart from the help of God:

John 8:15 You judge according to the flesh, I judge no one.

Rom. 7:5 While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.[1]

By contrast, the flesh of Jesus is salvific! Jesus both takes on his flesh in the incarnation and then gives his flesh at the crucifixion, the two acts which are pillars of our salvation:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth …” John 1:14

“The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” John 6:51.

No one would take John 6:63—“the flesh is of no avail”—and use it to argue that the Word becoming flesh (John 1:14) was worthless and pointless.  Therefore, they should not use it to argue that the Eucharistic flesh of Jesus in John 6:54—“he who eats my flesh has eternal life”—is ineffective or insignificant.

I have come to believe that the New Testament Scriptures themselves are completely clear on the point that the Eucharistic bread and wine simply are the flesh of Jesus.  That is the plain sense of all the texts in the New Testament that discuss the Eucharist, and Protestants pride themselves on taking the Scriptures in their plain sense.  Nonetheless, if it were the case that all the early Christian fathers explained to the early Church that these apparently obvious texts needed to be taken in a symbolic sense, I would accept it.  However, that is precisely what we do not find.

At the end of this Gospel Reading, the crowds of disciples disperse, and Jesus is left with the Twelve alone.  He puts the decision to them, just like Joshua put the decision to the Twelve Tribes in the First Reading: “Do you also want to leave?”  Meaning, “Choose whom you will follow.  Are you still with me, or do you want to look for a different savior?”

The situation of Jesus and of Joshua from the First Reading are more similar than we realize.  At stake in both situations is fidelity to God’s covenant.  We might miss the covenantal connections in the Gospel Reading, because the word is not used.  But recall that in the Last Supper accounts of the other three Gospels, Jesus calls the Eucharist cup the “New Covenant”!:

         “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood” Luke 22:20

Which means “consisting of my blood.”  In other words, Jesus’ Eucharistic body and blood are the new covenant that supersedes the Mosaic Covenant that Joshua was renewing with the people of Israel in the First Reading. 

 People don’t really get it, but the Eucharist is the New Covenant, and therefore, if you are not participating in the Eucharist, you are not fully partaking of the New Covenant.  This has implications for our separated brothers and sisters who essentially reject the Eucharist because “they will not admit that it is the self-same body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and the Father in his goodness raised up for our salvation” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans, c. AD 106, ch. 6-7).

The response of the disciples is summed up by Peter: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

In other words: “You are the only game in town.  There’s no hope in anyone else.”

This has to be our response in the face of challenges to our faith. 

Jesus teaches the way to salvation, but his teachings—whether about marriage or about the Eucharist—are not easy.  They offend our cultural sensibilities and how we think things ought to be.  Jesus’ teachings require faith on our part—they don’t immediately make sense, and we are inclined to walk away.

But where do we go?  It’s clear to me, at least, that the secular atheism dominant in our culture has no answers and no salvation, and is indeed the most depressing philosophy of life that could be invented.  And my study of other world religions has quickly revealed that their moral teachings and view of the human person are not in the same category as Christ’s teachings that have been passed down in the Church. 

I think this ending of the Gospel Reading is particularly poignant for Catholics in America, who over the past month have been disgusted by revelations of egregious failures of men in the hierarchy which could cause one to became disaffected with the institutional church.  But then the question is: where do you go?

I’ve been in Protestantism and know that it is not a cure for clergy sex scandals.  I’m old enough to remember when Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Baker fell from grace in front of the whole nation, giving Christianity a bad name.  And in the 1980’s there was a scandalous study of sexual abuse among clergy in the Dutch Calvinist denomination I belonged to, that dragged on for years and was manipulated for political purposes among different factions struggling for control of the future of that denomination. Protestantism is not the answer.

So at the end of the day, to whom do you go?  Dawkins has no answers.  Nietzsche has no answers.  Mohammed has no answers.  Buddha has no answers.  Nor Confucius or Zoraster or Plato or anyone else.

Only in the Church does Jesus Christ still come to meet us in our poverty and affliction, embodied in the Holy Eucharist. There he hears our cries—sometimes even our cries about our own clergy.  For he hears the cry of the poor.  And we taste him, and we see that the LORD is good.  "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life."  That is the answer.

[1] See also John 1:13; 3:6; 17:2; 1 John 2:16; Rom. 7:18,25; 8:3,5-9,12-13; 1 Cor 5:5, etc.

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