Readings for the Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time tell the story of commitments made long ago and the decisions that accompany the commitments.
We begin once again with the ancient Hebrew people. They have left Egypt, traveled through the Sinai Peninsula’s arid lands for 40 years, and now, under the leadership of Joshua, have entered into the Promised Land. Was the land empty and in need of a large community of people to enter and settle there? No. Were the peoples already living there happy to welcome newcomers? No. Did the peoples living there worship just one deity? No. Might there be some problems? Yes. Yes. Yes!
The Hebrew people were descendants of a few people who had left Ur (in modern day Iraq) many centuries earlier. They had lived in Canaanite lands before moving to Egypt during a great famine. They stayed in Egypt for a long time, growing from the families of the twelve original sons of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) to be a very large group of people. To prevent their developing an alliance with potential invaders from the east, Egyptian rulers enslaved the Hebrews. Moses, an Israelite child raised by an Egyptian princess, under the inspiration and guidance of God, eventually led the people to freedom and began the 40-year sojourn in the Sinai. In the Sinai, the covenant agreement established with Abraham, from whom they all descended, was re-established. Now, as they at last enter again the land where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had lived, it’s time to reconfirm their agreement.
Joshua (Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b) reminds them of their history and of all God has done for them. Will they remain true to God in this land to which they have come. Will they remember to worship only God, not the gods of the people living there, nor the gods they or their ancestors might have worshipped in the past? Will they obey the Law given to them in the desert, the instructions about how to live in peace and justice with each other and with those non-Hebrews who live among them? Joshua declares that he and his family will do so. The rest of the people respond that they also will do so.
It was a big commitment, especially since they would be living among many other peoples. Through the centuries that followed, there were times when they were faithful and times when they were not. Sometimes they lived in peace with their neighbors. Sometimes they were conquered. They explained these experiences in terms of whether they had been faithful to their Lord God or had not. When they were faithful, things went well. When they were not, things did not. Did God really turn away from them? No, God doesn’t do that. But there are consequences of decisions made and sometimes those consequences are not what we would prefer.
A commitment was made by the Hebrew people that day at Shechem. The decision to abide by that commitment had to be made again and again.
Many of the people who were disciples/followers of Jesus also had to make a commitment/decision after they had seen him feed a large crowd in an arid countryside. They had come to him back in town, wanting to see more miracles. Jesus didn’t give them more miracles. They spoke of the manna in the desert given by Moses. He reminded them that God had provided the manna. He then spoke of bread from heaven that would give the fullness of life to the world. As the conversation continued, he shocked all by declaring that he himself was the bread of life. His body and blood would bring life to the world. And, most shocking of all, they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have this fullness of life. That would be absolutely unthinkable for a good Jew or for members of most other human societies. In cultures that allowed consumption of human flesh, it was often done as a form of respect for the courage or strength of the one who had been killed (if an enemy), but that is not the case for the Hebrew people. Blood was never to be consumed because that was something associated with sacrifice of animals and children to the gods in the surrounding countries. It was forbidden absolutely in the Law. To this day, meat is koshered to remove any blood from it.
Jesus watched as most of his former followers walked away from him and returned to their prior way of life (Jn 6:60-69). He turned to his twelve closest friends and asked them bluntly, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter responded with a great statement and commitment, “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.” For better or for worse, this Jesus is different and special from all others. For John, this is another statement that Jesus is Divine Wisdom in the flesh.
A commitment was made by Peter and the others that day in Capernaum. This decision led to following Jesus through his life, death, and Resurrection – then out to the rest of the Roman Empire, announcing the good news of God’s love for all of us.
Lastly, we look at St. Paul and his instructions to the Ephesians (Eph 5:21-32) about the relationship between husbands and wives. This is one of the most misunderstood readings in the Bible. Paul does not think in terms of body and soul as making up the human being. For Jews of his time, the human being is something of a flesh/spirit union, not divisible – a whole human being. Paul writes about the relationship between husbands and wives in a style familiar to the Greco-Roman world. This type of instruction typically includes the expectations of children and parents, as well as of masters and slaves.
Paul begins with an amazing statement: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” To be subordinate does not mean to obey blindly or slavishly. Even the word obey doesn’t carry the same meaning we typically give it – that of doing exactly what one is told to do. The idea here is to “listen deeply” to what is being said. This requires a commitment to respect and care for the other person. To listen not just to the words, but also to the feelings and experiences of the other, to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
Paul instructs women to respect their husbands as they would respect Christ. Then he puts forward the idea that women are like the church, which he describes as subordinate to Christ. He tells the men that they are to love their wives as Christ loves the church, not to lord it over them. This wasn’t the norm in a time of arranged marriages in which a bride price had to be paid and women could be returned in disgrace to their families if their husbands grew angry with them or tired of them. Husbands are to love their wives as much as Christ loves all of us – to the extreme of giving his own life for us. Husbands and wives – wives and husbands, become one body as the church is the Body of Christ. Our marriages are to be as sacred as the relationship between Christ and humankind. It is a great mystery, as Paul notes. Two become one, not just in the beginning of their marriage, but as they grow together through the years.
A commitment is made, followed by many decisions to love.
What commitments have we made? What decisions follow those commitments? It takes a lifetime to discover the answers.
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