Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B - August 23, 2015
In today's Gospel (John 6:60-69), we hear of the mixed reactions of Jesus' disciples to the Bread of Life discourse that we have heard over the past weeks. Jesus provided bread, but his bread is not like the manna that God provided in the wilderness; this bread is himself, his very life; and those who eat it "will live forever."
As is often the case in John's Gospel, small, ordinary words such as bread and life are loaded with theological meaning. Centuries of Eucharistic theology and reflection give us a way to understand these words, but at the time they were first spoken, they were more than puzzling -- they probably were offensive to some people. Rightly reading the mood of his audience, Jesus says, "Does this offend you?"
Jesus' challenge sets up a critical turning point in the Gospel. Not only are we told that one of Jesus' followers would betray him; we also learn that some of those who had been following Jesus "turned back and no longer went about with him."
The group gets smaller as the stakes get higher. Whatever explanation Jesus gives, some choose to walk away, thus revoking their loyalty. John uses the word "disciples" for those who turn back. These were not casual or seasonal listeners: They were disciples who knew him and were most likely known by him.
Then Jesus called the Twelve together and put the question to them straightforward: "Do you also wish to go away?"
Peter plays the role of spokesperson, just as he does in the other Gospels: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." While the words are different, this exchange is much the same as Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi. There, Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" -- to which Peter responds, "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8:27-30). In both cases, the miracle of the feeding is the backdrop for the crucial question: who is Jesus really?
Paul's marriage challenge
If we want to find out how the relationship between a man and woman in marriage should be according to the Bible, we must look at the relationship between Christ and the Church. In today's second reading from the letter to the community at Ephesus, Paul exhorts married Christians to a strong mutual love.
At the origin and center of every Christian marriage, there must be love: "You, husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her." Paul's teaching on Christian marriage was difficult then as it is today.
Holding with Genesis 2:24 that marriage is a divine institution (Ephesians 5:31), Paul sees Christian marriage as taking on a new meaning symbolic of the intimate relationship of love between Christ and the Church. The wife should serve her husband in the same spirit as that of the church's service to Christ (Ephesians 5:22, 24), and the husband should care for his wife with the devotion of Christ to the church (Ephesians 5:25-30).
Paul gives to the Genesis passage its highest meaning in the light of the union of Christ and the Church, of which Christ-like loyalty and devotion in Christian marriage are a clear reflection (Ephesians 5:31-33).
Parts of today's Ephesians reading can be problematic, especially when one takes the line, "wives should be subordinate to their husbands," out of context. Some have justified abuse of their spouse by taking this line (Ephesians 5:22) completely out of context. They have justified their bad behavior, but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ: "Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church."
The Scriptures cannot be used to justify violence toward, or abuse of, any other human being. The Gospel calls all of us to show mutual care and respect to one another. This must be present in any healthy marriage or other committed relationship.
This mutual love and respect must also extend to relationships between nations and other groups of people. It must be reflected in the structures and rules of our society. Mutuality and loving, selfless service are the keys to an authentic, loving marriage, and of just relationships.
Foundations of society
In his third encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," Benedict XVI wrote:
"It is thus becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person.
"In view of this, states are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character" (44).
Though "Caritas in Veritate" is touted as a response to the economic crisis of the time, but is much more than that. A defense of family, the sanctity of life, a caution to not undermine the importance of human dignity: The Holy Father prudently explores each area, dissecting each topic on its own, as well as relating it to economics.
Regardless of any economic aspect, the wisdom shared concerning these areas stands on its own. It serves us well to take note of this as we strive for authentic human development. This is not some antiquated teaching or remnant of the past. It is the living foundation for the present and the future of humanity. And like many of Jesus' words, some will take offense at this and "walk away."
Without married people, we cannot build the future of society and the Church. I am convinced beyond any doubt that from solid families will come forth vocations to serve the church. The "vocation crisis" in many parts of the world is due in great part to the break up and dissolution of the family.
A scandalous teaching
The depth and significance of Christ's message, and the teaching of the Church, scandalizes, in the sense that it is often a stumbling block for the disbeliever and it is a test for the believer.
The theme of scandal, in the New Testament is connected with faith, as free acceptance of the mystery of Christ. Before the Gospel we cannot remain indifferent, lukewarm or evasive: The Lord calls each of us personally asking us to declare ourselves for him (cf. Matthew 10:32-33).
When we are faced with the difficult teachings of Jesus and the Church, do we also wish to go away? Is it not true that many times, because of the complexity of the issues, and the pressures of the society around us, we may wish to "go away?"
Peter's response to Jesus' question -- "Do you also wish to go away?" -- in today's Gospel is striking. He doesn't say, "yes, of course," but he doesn't quite say "no" either.
Instead, in good Gospel-style, he answers back with another question: "To whom else can we go?" It is not the most flattering answer in the world, but it is honest. Peter and the others stay with Jesus precisely because he has been a source of life for them. Jesus liberated them and given them a new life.
Following Jesus and the teaching of the Church may not always be easy, or pleasant, or even totally comprehensible, but when it comes to the eternal-life business, there's not much out there in the way of alternatives.
This week let us not forget the words of Jesus: "Whoever eats me will live because of me." Let us give witness to our Catholic faith and to God's plan that marriage be the sacred union of one man and one woman, to family life as the foundation of our society.
Blessed are we if we do not take offense, but are led by these words to abundant life.
[The readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32; and John 6:60-69