Commentary on the Readings
21th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
At times God asks too much
The results of histological examination, the response of an ultrasound, the results of amniocentesis, the diagnosis of a doctor can disrupt a person’s life. They can disrupt plans and dreams of a couple, placed in front of dramatic choices and the alternative is always between the wisdom of this world and that of Christ.
Making a gift of one’s own life is not easy or comfortable. It requires sacrifice, renunciation, asceticism. Accepting the will of God is willingness to follow “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9), even when all would be led to consider it illogical and inconclusive.
It’s hard to listen to the promptings of the Spirit, to rise to God and to focus on the life that lives forever. Smoother, but still disappointing, is to enter through the wide gate and to choose the spacious path (Mt 7:13), to fall back on the material prospects, forgetting that “the order of this world is vanishing” (1 Cor 7:31) and that man profits nothing to gain the whole world (Mt 16:26). Making choices “in the flesh” seems reasonable although, in one’s inner self, one realizes that “all flesh is grass, and all its beauty as the flower of the field” (Is 40:6).
The disciple who has “tasted the beauty of the Word of God and the wonders of the supernatural world” (Heb 6:5) remains subject to the temptation of turning away from Christ and being “in love with this present world” (2 Tim 4:9).
The Eucharist is a proposal. Who decides to receive it says yes to the light and rejects the darkness. This is the choice which qualifies the Christian.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“When all the reasons were on one side and Christ on the other, I would choose Christ.”
“After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant: cross the Jordan to the land which I give to the sons of Israel. Your frontiers will extend from the mountain of Lebanon in the north, to the desert in the south, as far as the great Euphrates in the east and the Great Sea in the west” (Jos 1:1-4). Thus the book of Joshua begins, a rather embarrassing book, because in it wars conducted in the name of the Lord, violence, mass executions, dozens of vanquished kings and peoples driven from their land to make way for the Israelites arriving from Egypt are talked about.
This story of the conquest of the Promised Land was written many centuries after the events and, while referring to the events in part corroborated by archeology, it should not be considered a history book in the modern sense. It is a theological interpretation of what happened. Israel, which has become sedentary, thinking back to the way she had managed, despite being the smallest and weakest of the people, to take possession of a land not her own. She attributed this enterprise not to her power or ability, but in the kindness of her God.
Today’s passage is taken from the last part of this book. It is Joshua’s farewell address to his people (Jos 22–24). “I am now very old and burdened with age—the great leader said—you have seen all that the Lord has done to all these nations for your sake and how he himself has fought for you” (Jos 23:2-3). He does not mention any of his glorious battles, nor boasts for the victories gained. He just remembers what the Lord has done for Israel.
Before considering his mission completed, he puts the people in front of a decisive choice. He wants them to declare openly and resolutely which God they intend to serve. Only later, at age one hundred and ten years old, peaceful, he can close his eyes in peace, on the mountains of Ephraim (Jos 24:29-30).
He gathers the tribes in Shechem and exposes his proposal: choose your God. Do you want to go back and serve the gods worshiped by your ancestors in Mesopotamia, before Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans; or the gods of the Amorites in the country in which we now live; or the Lord who has delivered us from slavery? He immediately adds: “As for me, I and my household will serve the Lord” (v. 15).
This request for verification is really amazing! It seems impossible that a people who has witnessed many miracles, passed through the waters of the Red Sea, ate the manna and drank water from the Rock, saw the collapse of the walls of Jericho and received the gift of a land flowing with milk and honey, can abandon the God who has fostered and protected them, indeed, who made them arise out of nowhere.
Yet in all this there is nothing strange, it is our history. Called into existence by God’s love, introduced in a world in which we are destined to live as pilgrims, filled with gifts to share with others, we can be seduced by the creatures we meet and begin to serve the gods worshiped on this earth—money, power, pleasure—forgetting the one who created us, and through Christ, the new Moses, delivered us from slavery and death.
Israel’s response came immediately, without hesitation: “May the God not permit that we ever abandon the Lord to serve other gods” (v. 16). We want to continue united to him who has freed us from Egypt and protected during the exodus in the desert. We are sure that no one else will receive many manifestations of love (vv. 17-18). The choice of God to worship—and a God they all still need—is not professed once and for all. It must be renewed at any time, because, consistently, other gods present themselves. They ask to be served, idols that seduce, deceive, but they ruin those who believe in them. Only the Lord God of Israel, deserves full faith and he does not betray.
Who has received the mission to lead the people, is called to proclaim, first, as did Joshua, by word and life, his adherence to the one true God.
Adhesion to Christ also involves a radical change of relationships within the family. The last part of the letter to the Ephesians devotes ample space to this subject (Eph 5:21–6:9).
The family conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings always come from the fact that someone dishonestly tries to dominate, claim to be served by others: the husband by his wife and vice versa, children by their parents, the owners by the slaves.
Today’s passage introduces an innovative principle in which one must always refer to and from which they must be regulated: Be subject to one another. No rule of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, those at the top over those at the bottom; but only submission, willingness to serve, in obedience to Christ (v. 21). Biblical fear does not indicate the fear of punishment, but the loving adherence to a person one blindly trusts. “The God-fearing” are those who make choices in accordance with the word of the Lord, and never act in contravention its directions.
Christ offers the choice of the last place, “Whoever wants to be more important in your community shall make himself your servant. Be like the Son of Man who has come, not to be served but to serve, and to give life to redeem many” (Mt 20:26-28).
Having established this principle, the author makes some applications to family relationships. He recommend in the first place: “Wives, be subject to your husband as you are to the Lord” (v. 22). “Be subject” is an addition and does not appear in the original text and is better taken off because the meaning is still clear and stressing a disposition already embarrassing should be avoided. It’s even irritating for women.
The passage is set in the mentality of the time. In the letter, in fact, one immediately notices that submission is recommended only for the most vulnerable, wives, children, slaves; although the exhortations: “Children obey your parents” (Eph 6:1) and “Servants, obey your masters” (Eph 6:5), are then balanced by other warnings: “You fathers, do not make rebels of your children” (Eph 6:4) and “You, masters deal with your servants in the same way, do not threaten them” (Eph 6:9).
The author, therefore, applies first of all to women, the principle he has formulated. If every Christian should consider himself a servant of others, the fact that their wives are invited to be subject to their husbands should not arouse any objection. Of course, it clashes with our modern sensibilities that this recommendation that probably husbands need more, is firstly directed to women.
To confirm, a theological reason is adopted: the church is also subject to Christ, who is the head and the source of life of the whole body (vv. 22-23). Her authority, however, has nothing to do with the oppressive despotism, but it’s just a service to life and the submission of the church to Christ is her willingness to accept his gifts, the fruits of his sacrifice, his sacrifice for love.
The conclusion, instead of developing and implementing this wonderful discourse, resumes the theme of “submission” of the wife to her husband, “in every situation” (v. 24). This insistence, too excessive for us, is the toll that the author pays to the culture of his time. The innovative principle of mutual service is however established and will constitute an eternal condemnation, because it is divine, of all arbitrariness, abuse, of any kind, even the most established, of machismo.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 25-32), the author of the letter addresses the husbands: “Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25).
We would have expected that also the husbands were reminded of, as it should be, the duty to be submissive to their wives, but for them another verb, “love,” agape is used. Agape indicates the feelings and actions of one who, completely forgetting oneself and one’s own interests, actively and passionately seeks only the good of others. It is the characteristic of the life of God, who is love (1 Jn 4: 8). To practice agape, the groom must keep himself, at all times and in all situations, at the service and totally submissive to his own wife.
The proposed model of love to the husband is Christ, who “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). With his love, he created a masterpiece: he transformed his wife, purifying her with water and words and has made of her a wonderful woman, “radiant, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless” (vv. 26-27).
This is the goal that, on the day of the wedding, every Christian groom seeks to achieve; in fact, in front of the whole community, he, hereby, assumes the responsibility to witness to the world the immense and unwavering love of Christ for his church (vv. 28-32).
For having ordered the women to remain subservient to their husbands, Paul was accused of misogynism. If one takes into account the complex structure of his thought that, in this passage, one of his disciples transmitted to us, and also the fact that the recommendations addressed to husbands are four times more than to those of their wives, it can be concluded that certain stereotypical statements about him are unfounded.
We are at the end of Jesus’ discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum. The Jews, who have sought him as a miracle worker, are faced with a staggering request: to welcome him, bread which came down from heaven. They have to make a choice whose stakes are high: to continue to live as they have done so far, adapting themselves to the wisdom of this world, and contenting themselves with the material bread, or make a quantum leap, accept his gospel, which is the bread of life.
At the beginning of the passage (v. 60), oddly enough, new interlocutors are introduced: no longer the “Jews,” but the “disciples.”
The reason for this change of character is pastoral. The evangelist reports the reaction of the crowds, that have materially assisted the sign of bread, just because it sees the crisis of every disciple reflected in it, when he or she is placed in front of the exacting requirements of the Master. The author speaks to the Christians of his community to invite them to resolutely decide in whom and in what they intend to believe.
The observation is bitter: many of the disciples who saw the sign and who listened to the speech do not accept the proposal of Jesus. It’s too “hard,” they say. Not that they have not understood. At first, it is true, they have misunderstood. Maybe someone has thought of a meal by cannibals, but not any more, now everything is clear. They have understood very well what Jesus means, but are unwilling to give their consent. Uniting one’s life to his, choosing to give one’s life, involves too great a risk.
To trust or not to trust him, this is the alternative.
The proposal can be accepted or rejected, but not negotiated, modified, made more acceptable by the cancellation of some of its demands. The choice is not just with the mind and the heart, but also through the act of approaching to receive the bread of the Eucharist in which Christ is really present, is offered to the disciple.
At this point, a disturbing question arises. If worthily receiving the Eucharist call for being so determined and so radical in giving one’s life together with Christ, who can ever dare to take communion?
Let us, for a moment, suspend the answer to this question and see how Jesus reacts to the difficulty of the disciples to adhere to his proposal?
This is not surprising, because misunderstanding and rejection are part of the mystery of human consciousness (v. 61). Then, instead of mitigating his demand, he reports a new puzzle; he announces in a dramatic moment to the Christian community: his return to heaven from where he descended as bread.
The mysterious statement “when you see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?” (v. 62) can be paraphrased like this: if you have so much trouble accepting my proposal now that I am in your midst, what will happen when I will have returned to the Father? Then you will be demanded a purer faith, without ties to any verification, from any vision, from any significant contact with me, other than that of the sacramental signs.
To get involved in this pure faith, the disciples are asked to leave the world of the “flesh” and enter the world of the Spirit. “The flesh is useless” to those who want to understand the gospel proposal (v. 63). The purely human and earthly wisdom is unable to enter into the mysteries of God: “The one who remains on the psychological level does not understand the things of the Spirit. They are foolishness for him and he does not understand because they require a spiritual experience” (1 Cor 2:14). It should not be surprising, then, that the gospel can not be accepted by those who insist on wanting to reconcile with the human common sense.
The conclusion is depressing, but predictable: “After this many disciples withdrew and no longer followed him” (v. 66).
These disciples, also present in our communities, are not bad. They should not be considered traitors, they are just consistent. They realized that the Master is demanding too much; they are unwilling to give their consent and withdraw. Jesus respects their freedom, not oblige them to share his choice, not force them to “eat his flesh.” Maybe they will look back, indeed, we are confident that they will review their position, especially those who approach the Eucharist each day will give them a witness of authentic Christian life.
The passage does not close, however, with the refusal of the Jews and with the announcement of the betrayal of Judas, but with the positive response of the twelve (vv. 67-69).
Jesus deluded the expectations of the majority of those who have followed him, but there is a group that, while not yet fully understanding what is involved in adhering to him, gives him its assent.
Faith is not based on evident and irrefutable proofs, but it is the loving adherence to a person. It’s no wonder that this adhesion is accompanied always by doubt and perplexity, and many remain, even for a long time, hesitant.
To the Master’s question, “Will you also go away?” Peter, speaking in the plural, expresses the faith of all and says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It is the profession of faith that Christ expects of us today.
The question remains hanging: “Who can ever feel worthy to approach the Eucharistic banquet? Who can be so rash as to compromise with Christ, in such solemn manner, to give one’s life with him?”
If the Eucharist were a reward for the righteous, certainly no one would dare receive it. But it is not the bread of angels; it is the food offered to the pilgrim people—sinners, weak, tired, in need of help on earth.
In the account of the institution of the Eucharist, the Evangelist Matthew reports Jesus’ words when he offers the cup of wine to his disciples: “Drink this, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28).
It is not to celebrate our own purity and holiness that we approach the Eucharistic banquet, but to obtain from God the forgiveness of sins. To one who receives communion moral perfection is not required, but the disposition of the poor who recognizes his unworthiness and his own misery and approaches him who can heal. For whoever receive it with this disposition of humble and sincere faith, the bread of the Eucharist becomes a medicine, it treats moral diseases, heals any wound, overcomes all sin.