Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Homily for the
21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 23, 2015
Eph 5: 21-32
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

“Brothers and sisters:  Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5: 21).

About 2 weeks ago there was an op-ed in the NYT by Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, titled “We Need a Servant Leader.”  He was writing about what the country needs as we look for a new President.  (You may have noticed that there’s a vacancy coming up.)

1st, Mr. Schultz notes “the power of the image” of Pope Francis kneeling to wash the feet of a dozen prisoners on the Holy Thursday about a month after his election.

Then he notes the campaign bluster and political incivility to which we’ve gotten accustomed, the great economic and social problems we need to deal with, and the pessimism with which young people face the future.

The solution, Mr. Schultz believes, is “servant leadership—putting others first and leading from the heart.”  It’s not a new concept, even in the corporate world, or in other areas of life.  Athletes will take up impossible challenges for a manager or coach who believes in them, looks out for them, treats them fairly.  Soldiers will follow an officer or NCO who they know is protecting them even in dangerous situations, shares risk with them, and says not “Go ahead, men,” but “Follow me.”  Parishioners love clergy and nuns who visit the sick regularly, give attention to children, attend parish meetings, prepare well for liturgy, and are kind and gentle.

Mr. Schultz is applying his thoughts to our country’s leadership needs.  Jesus long ago applied the servant-leader concept to his followers.  E.g., when the apostles James and John asked for privileged positions in his kingdom, and then the other 10 got angry about that, Jesus told them all:  “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt 20:26-27).  At the Last Supper he took the slave’s role of washing the feet of his dinner guests—the example that Pope Francis follows on Holy Thursday.  In today’s 2d reading, St. Paul also applies the concept to Jesus’ followers.

In recent years this passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians has become controversial, so much that the lectionary now provides an alternate, shorter, politically correct reading that omits 4 verses.

A better approach, I think, is to take the sacred text as it is and face it.  What did it mean for the 1st-century Church, and what does it mean for us?  I think the key lies in the 1st line:  “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  That line is addressed to all of us, male and female, young and old, married and single.  In terms of Mr. Schultz’s op-ed, it’s a challenge to all of us to be servant-leaders:  to lead others by serving them, like our Lord Jesus.

Family life in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century was very different from ours.  Fathers ruled absolutely—just like kings and emperors within their political domains.  The ideal ruler—of a kingdom or of a family—looked after everyone’s best interest, after what we call “the common good.”  In the Bible, the rulers of Israel were compared to shepherds and were supposed to look diligently to the needs of their flock.  Of course, human selfishness—sin—often got in the way of that ideal of serving those who depended on the leader, the head, the pater familias.

Our world is more democratic, more equal in relationships, more sharing of responsibilities.  Hence, as we read Paul, we need to take the words he addresses to wives and apply them also to husbands; and his words to husbands and apply them to wives.  The essential point remains mutual service, mutual self-giving, sacrificing one’s own comfort, interests, and even safety for the sake of the other person.  That is leadership after the example of Jesus, who—in his words—“did not come to be served but to serve,” who “came to give his own life as a ransom for” us sinners (Mark 10:45).

On Friday morning an alumnus of our school in New Rochelle stopped by my office with his teenaged daughter.  In the course of our conversation, he referred to the obedience that we religious owe to our superiors, and he compared that to the obedience that husbands in practice owe to their wives—St. Paul’s words notwithstanding, altho he didn’t say that.  In a flourishing marriage, as you know, wives and husbands are partners and best friends and are eager to please each other—to serve each other and help each other (and their children too).

Paul charges husbands with a far harder task than he does wives:  “love your wives as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her,” i.e., gave his life for her, “to sanctify her” (5:25-26).  Christ loves the Church absolutely, unconditionally, without any limit, even to the point of giving his life for her.  Nowadays we must hold this charge as given not only to husbands but also to wives, that each “nourish and cherish” the other “even as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (5:29-30).

Paul refers to Christ’s sanctifying the Church, cleansing her, presenting the Church to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:26-27).  Then he says, “This is a great mystery, … in reference to Christ and the Church” (5:32).  Christian matrimony is the sacramental sign of this sanctifying work of Jesus.  (In biblical and liturgical language, mystery or mysteries usually refers to such signs, hidden realities expressed thru visual actions and audible words.)  Spouses mirror the sacrificial love of Christ for us, his Church.  Spouses assist each other in their growth as followers of Jesus, in their becoming holy.  In this, there’s no question of who’s “in charge” or who gives orders; rather, it’s a question of listening to Jesus, imitating Jesus, and helping each other (and the kids) do that; of subordinating oneself to Christ, 1st of all, and then to others for their benefit, for the common good of the whole family.  Both Jesus and Paul quote Genesis and remind us, “the two shall become one flesh” (5:31; cf. Matt 19:5 and Gen 2:24); marriage, like the Church, isn’t about me but about us.  Therefore, “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

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