The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Joshua 24:1-2,15-17,18 + Ephesians 5:21-32 + John 6:60-69
August 22, 2021
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Today’s Second Reading is hard. Many Christians do not accept it. It can seem that the Church herself is not completely convinced that today’s Second Reading is worth hearing, because there’s an option for a shorter version that omits the less provocative parts.
“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” Many Christians in the 21st century would say about this sentence what “[m]any of Jesus’ disciples” said about His teaching in John 6: “‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’”
Now, you may think that it’s comparing apples and oranges to hold up today’s Second Reading to the light of today’s Gospel passage. One is preaching about Holy Matrimony, and the other about the Holy Eucharist. But what if these two Scripture passages have more in common than it seems at first hearing?
The Second Reading’s context is summarized by the first sentence of the longer version: a sentence which very strangely is not included in the shorter version. “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This sentence makes clear that in Holy Matrimony, the husband submits himself to his wife in addition to the wife submitting herself to her husband.
The context is illuminated even more profoundly by the reading’s final sentence. Fortunately, this sentence is included in both the longer and shorter forms: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” The subordination of husband and wife to each other is a mystery that receives its inspiration and its strength from the mystery of Christ and His Church being subordinate to each other. This truth connects today’s Second Reading to the Gospel passage, and indeed, to all the Gospel passages of the five Sundays that conclude today.
“‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” What exactly is so hard about Jesus’ teaching in John 6? When Jesus says that His Flesh is true food, and when He says that if you do not eat the Flesh of the Son of Man you will not have life in you, are there some who took His words to mean that Jesus was commanding cannibalism?
Understanding the literal meaning of John 6 has always challenged Christians, just as it did the original audience of Jesus’ “Bread of Life” sermon. Are these words of Jesus to be taken literalistically, as if Jesus were commanding cannibalism? Or are they to be taken symbolically or as metaphors? Or is there a “third way” of interpretation, the basis of which is Jesus’ own Incarnation? The only adequate way to understand Jesus’ words here is in a sacramental sense, which of course would be an entirely new concept 2000 years ago.
Jesus knows that the disciples who leave Him after hearing about the Bread of Life—and the evangelist says that they were “many of His disciples”—do in fact understand what He’s saying. The problem isn’t in their heads, but in their hearts. They are not willing to subordinate their minds and hearts to Jesus Christ. They are not willing to allow Jesus to serve them as their Lord in the sacrifice of His Flesh and Blood for His Bride, the Church.
For cradle Catholics, it’s really not very hard to accept the Church’s beliefs about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But to integrate that belief into our daily life is profoundly hard, no matter how long you’ve been a Catholic. To receive the Eucharist in Holy Communion on Sunday is a very simple action. But to allow the grace of His Body and Blood to transform you from within, so that Jesus lives in you, and He leads your life 24/7: that’s the life of a saint.
Too often in our modern day, we approach God from the perspective of a consumer culture, where God offers us deals, and His grace is like a cash-back program for participating in the sacraments. Instead, God in truth calls each Christian to a divine marriage. There are many New Testament writings on Holy Matrimony. These include today’s Second Reading, but also include all of John 6, which is about Jesus subordinating His whole Self—Flesh, Blood, soul and divinity—for His Spouse, the Church, including you who are a member of His Church.