This Saying Is Hard; Who Can Accept It?

User's Guide to Sunday, Aug. 23


Sunday, Aug. 23, is the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B).


Mass Readings

Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 34:2-3, 16-23; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

Audiences reject two pieces of advice in today’s readings — but the readings also give us the key that allows us to accept both.

Last Sunday, we heard the passage that immediately precedes the Gospel passage read today.

Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”

This week, we hear the crowd’s answer: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

It gets worse. The Gospel reports: “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life.”

But ancient audiences are not the only ones who reject the word of God.

The second reading says: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands, as to the Lord.” It might as well go on to say: “And 21st-century Westerners said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’ And many returned to their former way of life.”

But, like the crowds in the Gospel, we misunderstand.

The letter is hardly asking women to be slaves to their husbands. In fact, the sentence before that one specifically precludes dominance on the part of husbands:  “Be subordinate to one another, out of reverence for Christ.”

Then the reading continues by revealing the key: Jesus Christ and his relationship with the Church: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her.”

This, too, is hardly a relationship of dominance. It is a relationship of suffering and sacrifice on Christ’s part and participation in his salvific act on the part of the Church.

Jesus Christ is not a figure of dominance; he is a figure of love. He had divine power, insisting that “the Son of Man has authority on earth.” But the way he wields his authority is through forgiving and healing, and appealing to our free will, not by forcing himself on anyone.

Jesus came to serve, not to be served, and no Christian, whether husband or wife or priest or bishop, is called to dominate others. Each is a servant.

The figure of Jesus Christ is the key that makes sense of the Gospel’s startling statement, too.

Jesus asks his apostles, “Do you also want to leave?”

Peter answers, “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.”

His commitment is not to the teaching on the Eucharist, at least not yet. It is to Jesus. He can’t grasp the words, but he has come to accept their speaker; it is to him he gives his allegiance.

Ultimately, the conundrums that we face in the faith life are all solved by looking to the person of Christ and choosing to stick with him.

We don’t make this choice in a vacuum. As the first reading reminds us, it’s not a question of following Jesus or ourselves. We are human, dependent beings. We will always follow one “god” or another: It could be money; it could be pride; it could be pleasures or comforts.

“You may serve the devil, or you may serve the Lord,” as Bob Dylan put it, “but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

When we don’t like a teaching of the Church, we should remember Joshua’s words from today’s first reading:

“If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve: the gods your fathers served beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites, in whose country you are now dwelling.”

With God’s grace, we can answer: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas,

where he lives with April, his wife and in-house theologian and consultant, and their children.