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Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

August 26, 2012

To whom shall we go?


The readings for today all call for difficult decisions. The people at the time of Joshua had to decide which god they would worship. Would it be the God of their ancestors who had cared for them through difficult time, but who also made great demands on them? Or would it be the local god, one who seemed to be able to provide its devotees with prosperity? God had provided for them in the past, and so they seemed confident that God would continue to provide for them in the future. However, the circumstances of life had changed. The God who had brought them out of Egyptian bondage was a warrior-God, one who could accomplish feats with "an outstretched arm" (Exod 6:6). In this new country they would be faced with all of the challenges of agriculture, and that was the realm claimed by the gods of the Amorites. There was no guarantee that the God of Israel had power over those forces of nature, and yet they chose to serve that God.


Though many today will not be happy with the marital roles described by Paul, what he was proposing was really revolutionary for that day. In line with the customs of the patriarchal society of the time, he counseled wives to be subject to their husbands. However, he also directed husbands to love their wives as they loved themselves Even more revolutionary was the model against which husbands were to measure their love. It was the self-sacrificing love that Christ had for the Church. If such unselfish love was practiced in marriages, it would go a long way toward dismantling some of the oppressive structures of patriarchal hierarchy. The challenge was placed before the new Christians; we have no idea whether or not they chose to accept it.


It is clear from the gospels that Jesus was not the kind of messiah that many people were expecting. Most likely it was easy to follow him when he performed great feats of healing, or when he stood against rigid religious leaders in defense of the marginalized and despised. However, he did not always receive warm acceptance from his audience. Today's gospel reading demonstrates this. His discourse on 'the bread of life,' (sections of which have been the gospel readings the past few Sundays) made great demands on his hearers. Even many of his disciples said: "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" Some of them were so upset by it that they left him and returned home disappointed. Hard as it might have been, this was their decision, and Jesus gave them the freedom to make it.


Making the decision for God is no easier today then it was at the time of Joshua, or Jesus, or Paul. In some situations we are attracted to success, or we want to be like others. Some of the religious values of the past might seem outmoded. Or, social pressures could be so strong that we might prefer the status quo. Why unsettle the waters? All such decisions would be hard enough if people were sure that in making them they were deciding rightly, but that is not always the case. How could the people at Joshua's time or Paul's Christians or the followers of Jesus have been absolutely sure that their decisions was the right one? They couldn't. They had to trust in Joshua or Paul or Jesus. Ultimately, they were trusting that God would not lead them astray.


And what of us? We must believe that our religious tradition can carry us into new situations, and that its values are vital despite the new challenges we find there. At the same time, we must be willing to let go of what no longer serves people well, perspectives or practices that we now realize diminish rather than enhance life. These might be hard sayings; who can accept them? Jesus asked: "Do you also want to leave?" Will we be able to reply with Simon Peter: "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."


By Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., Professor of Old Testament Studies   


This reflection first appeared in America magazine and can now be found in The Word for Every Season: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2010). 


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