FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 22, 2021:
You may recall the great movie, My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, which came out a number of years ago now. It tells the story of a large ethnic family focusing on their awkward daughter who pursues her dreams, falls in love and marries. But, there is a scene early on in the film that came to mind for me reflecting on our Scriptures today. After years of working in the family restaurant, the daughter decides she wants to go to college. She musters up the courage and asks permission of her father, who immediately says “no”. Crying on her mother’s shoulder the mother responds, “Don’t worry, I will talk to your father.” Feeling the hopelessness of the situation the daughter responds, “He won’t change his mind. He is stubborn. ‘The man is the head of the household.’” The mother strokes her daughter’s hair and smiles, and says, “Yes, the man, he is the head. But the woman? She is the neck. And I can turn that head any way I want.”
We heard from St. Paul today, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.” It is always interesting to see the reactions to this particular line of Scripture. Wives be subordinate – or in some translations, submissive – to your husbands. This one single line has often been called the most dangerous sentence in the Bible; and because of the possible sexist connotations tied to it; it is more often than not completely avoided by most preachers. And, I think that is a real tragedy because what St. Paul is trying to say to us in this reading today is profound; it is important; and it also just might be exactly what our world needs to be reminded of right now. So bear with me and let’s see how we can come to understand this passage better.
You see, the problem with this phrase from Ephesians, “Wives be subordinate to your husbands,” is that we tend to isolate that passage and not look at the rest of the reading. Alone, this passage is troubling and seems to support a subjugation of women, but that is an understanding that is out of context. When we look at the bigger picture, we find that St. Paul is not encouraging a chauvinistic household, but instead one that is balanced; not one where husbands lord authority over wives, but one where everyone is subordinate; everyone is the servant of the other.
There are two keys to this reading – the first is the initial words we hear, “Be subordinate to one another.” We are all called to be servants one to the other. So, if “wives be subordinate to your husbands” is true; then it is also true to say, “husbands be subordinate to your wives,” “children be subordinate to your parents,” “parents be subordinate to your children.” This reading doesn’t want to perpetuate a power dynamic, it’s not establishing a formal hierarchy in the Christian household with the husband at the top ruling over everyone else – quite the opposite; St. Paul wants to eliminate such notions; leaving in its wake a community of servants. “Be subordinate to one another.”
What does this Christian life of service look like? Just a few lines before, St. Paul says this, “Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.” We cannot hear St. Paul’s words about being subordinate without hearing them in connection to these words. Subordination or service looks like compassion, and kindness, and humility, and gentleness, and patience and forgiveness.
A good friend of mine just this week was telling me the story of how his grandparents met and I think it is a beautiful example of what St. Paul is speaking of when he asks husbands and wives to be servants of each other. Frederick and Bertha met in South Boston mere months before Frederick would head off to fight in World War I. Fred, although not Catholic, had a number of Catholic friends that were very involved in the Knights of Columbus and Fred would always be at their side helping with events. As their relationship developed, Bertha was taken with his kind heart and his devotion to volunteering in the church.
As Fred was off in the Navy during the war, the two would correspond regularly, eventually falling in love via this correspondence. Ironically, both Fred and Bertha were Lutherans, but neither knew that about the other. In fact, they each assumed the other was Catholic. And so as Bertha’s love for Frederick grew deeper, she decided to secretly speak with the local Catholic pastor. She told the priest, “I’m falling in love, and he’s Catholic. I would like to become a Catholic for him.” Bertha began to meet weekly with the priest and was welcomed into the Catholic faith. But, she didn’t say a word to Fred.
Once the war was over, Frederick returned and the first thing that Bertha wanted to do was go to Mass together to pray in gratitude for Fred’s safe return. They went, but he felt embarrassed because, not being Catholic, he wasn’t sure what to do. But, he saw the deep faith of the woman he loved and wanted what she had. So, off Frederick went, secretly, to the same pastor and said, “I’ve fallen in love with Bertha and she’s Catholic. I would like to become Catholic because she’s the woman I want to marry.” So he started meeting with the pastor weekly, and once he had been welcomed into the faith, he asked Bertha to marry him – both of them completely unaware of what the other had done. The night before their wedding, at the wedding rehearsal, the pastor shared the secret that they had become Catholic out of love for the other.
“Brothers and sister be subordinate to one another.” Fred and Bertha were servants to each other – they saw the good in each other; they wanted the same holiness that they saw in each other; they knew that their only happiness could be found in serving each other out of reverence for Christ.
My friends, we are not called to be powerful in relation to each other, we are called to be powerless; we are not called to be lords over one another; we are called to serve. In a world that seeks to pit us one against another day after day, let us instead be servants to each other – not just the people we like or who like us; but everyone. How do we end the cycle of anger, and hatred, and division? Be subject to each other out of reverence for Christ.
“Put on, as God's chosen ones heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.” Let us be subordinate to one another.
May the Lord give you peace.
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