The readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time can be found here.
As we prepare for this weekend's Liturgy of the Word, what comes to your mind when you think of serving God- as a Person? As a parent? As a spouse? The readings this week address these issues, even though, at times, these readings make people uncomfortable.
The Old Testament Reading has Joshua asking the people who they will serve: God is not their only option. There are the gods of the people from over the river, the gods of the culture where the Hebrews are residing, and then, of course, Yahweh. Joshua's question doesn't seem to come with any sort of anger or given answer; he is simply giving his people an option and telling them his choice. "If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve...As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." Our world offers us so many options as to who we will serve. As spiritual beings, we feel called to worship and have a relationship with something far greater than ourselves. In the world, we have a variety of religions and deities that we can find; have we chosen to serve the Lord? Will we find ourselves worshiping gods we have created in the media or in our lives, or will we answer, like Joshua's tribe, "we...will serve the Lord, for he is our God"?
The Psalm repeats this week, with its refrain of "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord." Yet, excluding the first "verse" of the Psalm, the remaining verses are not from the 20th Week. Instead, we are given a look at the mercy of the Lord. He sees and hears the just; He is close to the brokenhearted. The Lord delivers and saves the just. It is easy to love and praise God in the good times; who doesn't say "Thanks be to God!" when they are financially stable, their families happy, the health well, and their dreams seeming to come true one by one! But it becomes harder to give thanks and praise when our lives feel shattered: when marriages feel on the brink of destruction, when children die, when we battle illness. In a society that is wracked by job loss and instability, we often find ourselves barely making it from paycheck to paycheck; with parents reaching older ages and being confronted with debilitating illnesses, we find ourselves not only children but caretakers as well. Perhaps your life felt complete when God blessed you with a new baby, and you are left wondering how you will start your life as a parent all over again- when you were just getting a grasp on the family you had. Or maybe your very wanted baby has died in utero to miscarriage or stillbirth, or a child you have cared for and nourished outside of the womb has succumbed to illness and death. How do we praise God in these awful times? How do we- especially when we feel we are the "just" that this week's Psalm describes- offer up our sufferings while saying "Thank you, God" for the pain? How do we accept the embrace that the Lord offers because He IS close to the brokenhearted, when we feel as though are hearts cannot be mended?
The fifth chapter of Ephesians, from which the second reading is drawn, is often a hard pill for many Christians (especially women) to swallow. We often hear the "Be subservient to your husband" passage without taking note of the way St. Paul begins this section.
"Brothers and sisters: Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ."
In the household- our domestic church- we find each person carrying roles that make the home function. As in any organization- military, business, or church- there are varying roles, with someone having to be at the top of the pyramid to report to the big "boss"- in this case, God. We can't always agree; at some point, a person- the ultimate leader of the organization- must make a choice that reflects the best needs of all the family (not just their own opinions). St. Paul, in Ephesians, gives guidance to the Christian family. He begins by telling all the members to be subservient to each other because of their love of Jesus. Put each other first, he is telling them; put yourself last. This is a commonly repeated message in the Bible. Wives are told to see Christ in their husbands and to willingly, and with the same love they have for Jesus, to put themselves in a role that looks to their husband for love, support, guidance, and care. Do we, as wives, look to our husbands this way? Do we see them as an embodiment of the Lord in our home, the same way we look to our priests as a visual representation of Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
Husbands are given no easy task; St. Paul tells them that they are to love their wives in the same way that Jesus Christ loves the Church. What a call! Jesus gave His life willingly for the lives He was saving- past, present, and future. He suffered greatly; He lost everything that a human man could lose. His friends turned on him, His body was abused, He was the brokenhearted in the Psalms, crying out to God in agony. And yet, He did all of this with love in His heart. He did all of this for the ones He loved. Husbands are given this great command- to give everything to their wives, to lose everything for them, to love them with a love so strong that it surpasses death and suffering. Husbands, do we look at our wives as Jesus looks at humanity? Do we love them to the point of losing our own desires and needs, in order to put theirs first? Not only are husbands told this command, but St. Paul continues by telling husbands to love their wives like they love themselves. Humans have a naturally selfish streak; we want our own ways, our needs met, our desires fulfilled. St. Paul turns that around; husbands are commanded to feel this way in regards to their wives. This passage ends with telling us that this is all "a great mystery", and that it is. What a self-sacrifice to give yourself completely to your spouse; to value their role in your life among your own, to truly see Jesus in them.
The Gospel Acclamation echoes this great mystery by telling us that the Word is our spirit and our life, leading us into the Gospel from John, which begins by the Disciples saying, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" In light of the previous readings from today, we may find ourselves saying this very same thing! This Gospel follows the Gospel reading from the 20th and 19th Sundays; specifically, Jesus's followers are asking how Jesus can truly give them His body and blood for consumption and life. However, this is a beautiful tie in to the second reading when husbands are commanded to give up all for their wives as Jesus did for the Church and wives are commanded to willingly put themselves subservient to their husbands as they do in love for their relationship to Christ. This marital mystery intertwines with the Mystery of the Eucharist. Does Jesus tell the people "You're right- it's hard. Let's reevaluate."? No. Instead, He says, "It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail." What does this mean to you? How do you read this in light of the readings from last week as well as the readings from this week?
Many people, as a result of this teaching, leave Jesus. The Gospel tells us "Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him." We, just like these disciples and those surrounding Joshua in the first reading, have the same option. We can take the teachings from the Bible and the Catechism and choose to not follow them. God has given us free will and minds to try to reason and understand. But each time we do this, we are also offered the same question of our ancestors- the same question that Jesus poses to the Apostles in John, "Do you also want to leave?"
Questions to consider from the Gospel: How do handle the Word when it conflicts with your natural inclination? Do you find yourself embracing the teachings of the Church even when it is a struggle or do you feel more in line with the modern "take what you want and leave the rest" motto? How would you answer the Lord if you were one of the Twelve with him in the book of John?