21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 26, 2018

Please Note: At all Masses this weekend, a visiting priest will preach about the Diocesan Missionary Cooperative Plan. Consequently, I’ve taken the opportunity to be long-winded. I hope my reflections are helpful to you.

Today’s first reading describes a covenant renewal ceremony led by Joshua, the successor to Moses. Such renewal ceremonies were fairly common in ancient Israel. The ceremony in today’s reading occurred after the Israelites had settled successfully in the Land of Promise. Much later in Israel’s history, Jeremiah prophesied about a renewed covenant; his prophecies influenced Jesus’ preaching about the New Covenant in Baptism.

In his covenant renewal ceremony, Joshua reminded the Israelites of all that God had done for them. The People ratified their renewal of the Covenant by repeating the account of God’s providential care. They said, “it was the Lord, our God, who brought us and our ancestors up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. He performed those great signs before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed. At our approach the Lord drove out all the peoples, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land. Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Jos. 24:17-18)

The People’s gratitude toward God is an example of one of the valid reasons for religious practice. There are a lot of bad reasons to go to church, but only a few good reasons to do so. One of the good reasons to go to church is to express appropriate gratitude to God for God’s many blessings.

Gratitude for God’s goodness has at least three redeeming effects in our lives. First, it gives appropriate acknowledgment to God who is the source of all good. Second, it reminds us of everything for which we should be grateful. Third, gratitude keeps our minds focused on good even when evil and sorrow seem to have the upper hand.

Appropriate gratitude keeps us connected consciously and intentionally to God; regular church attendance reminds us to cultivate this redeeming form of gratitude in our daily lives.

Today’s second reading describes a second valid reason for religious practice. The Letter to the Ephesians says, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:21-22) During the late twentieth century, this passage of the Scriptures was dismissed as an unfortunate instance of St. Paul’s misogyny. The fact that this letter was neither written by Paul nor proposing discrimination against women was insufficient to rescue the Apostle to the Gentiles from the crime of being politically incorrect.

More recently, this statement has gained wider disapproval on the basis of western culture’s aversion to anything that sounds like an attempt to assert any form of objective authority over individuals. I’d like to suggest that this passage of Scripture shouldn’t be dismissed as hopelessly offensive. I’d like to suggest that we look at what the author actually wrote rather than what has resulted from later misinterpretations.

This section of the Letter to the Ephesians has a rather complex structure that is not readily apparent to modern readers. The primary difficulty that modern readers have with understanding this passage is its use of a common cultural practice from ancient pagan culture, a cultural practice that is largely unknown today. Hellenistic culture used stylized formulations called “household codes” in order to instruct children and youth about socially acceptable behavior. This section of Ephesians adapts a typical Hellenistic household code by giving it an uniquely Christian interpretation.

The injunctions that begin verses 21, 22, 23, 25, and 29 reflect the content of a typical household code from the ancient world: “Be subordinate to one another . . . wives should be subordinate to their husbands . . . for the husband is head of his wife . . . husbands, love your wives . . .for no one hates his own flesh.” The author then qualifies each of the injunctions by adding a reference to the respect that the baptized owe to God: “out of reverence for Christ . . . as to the Lord . . .Christ is the head of the Church . . .even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her . . . even as Christ does the Church, for we are members of his body.”

The author began by Christianizing elements from a pagan moral code, but then completely reinterpreted the status quo described by the household code. In the reinterpreted code in Ephesians, the love of husband and wife is a metaphor that describes God’s love for the Church. The author’s revision of the household code imitates Jesus’ practice of upending typical cultural values. (e.g., Matthew 19:23-20) Instead of trying to maintain the status quo of society, the author is urging his readers to embrace a counter-cultural faithfulness toward God and one another.

The relationship described in Ephesians as “being subordinate to” would be described more adequately in the twenty-first century as “being faithful to.” The author of the letter is saying that fidelity to God is a relationship identical to marital fidelity. True fidelity is mutual, exclusive, and lifelong; anything less than this is less than faithful.

The pagan moral code that formed the foundation of this passage was put through a conversion process similar to the conversion process experienced by gentiles who came to baptism and faith in Jesus. In this passage of Ephesians, a pagan description of an orderly family life is transformed into a description of how faith in Jesus brings divine order into one’s life.

Here, we see a second valid reason for maintaining regular religious practice: faith in the One, True God brings a sense of order into our lives. The sense of order that results from faithful religious practice is neither arbitrary nor imposed from outside us. Faith in God lends an interior order to our priorities, needs, and desires. When we love God above all else, all of our other loves and attractions find their proper places in our lives. The opposite is also true: when we do not love God in the way that God deserves, all of our loves, relationships, needs, and desires fall into disorder.

Regular church attendance helps us structure our lives by giving every relationship appropriate attention.

Today’s Gospel reading presents a third valid reason for religious practice. In today’s reading Jesus says about his preaching, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (Jn 6:63) Jesus’ mission was to reveal God’s nature to the world. Because it is easy to formulate mistaken ideas about who God is and how God acts, Jesus preached about God’s true nature. In this sense, his words are “spirit and life” for our souls.

Religious practice is valid and faithful when it is concerned with ultimacy, the eternal, that which lies above the created universe. The lack of awareness of ultimacy is prevalent and easy to identify. The widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment with which many people live is a result of putting ultimate trust in transient things. As good as the created world is, it is limited; the limited good of creation is not worthy of our ultimate trust because limited, imperfect things will always fail and disappoint eventually. Religion as a conscious orientation toward the Infinite allows us to trust creation in a conditional way because such religion is unconditional trust in God.

Regular church attendance focuses our attention and trust on what does not pass away.

What constitutes valid religious practice? In more straightforward language: why go to church?

Increasingly, it is popular to view every human activity as valid only if it serves a selfish purpose. This is a pervasive attitude in Catholicism. Church attendance, prayer, and belief are very often promoted as means to obtain favors from God, to guarantee one’s salvation, or to control the outcome of one’s life (or the life of another).

The self-centered approach to the practice of Catholicism spans the entire spectrum from neo-traditional to blatantly consumeristic. Neo-traditionalism masks its selfishness in the trappings of conventional, “old-fashioned” Catholicism. This approach to religion promotes various devotional practices as guarantees of salvation. The logical (and theological) absurdity of this position is that it teaches that God can be coerced into granting favors and people should be coerced into doing the right thing. Self-serving religion fails to acknowledge that any god that can be coerced isn’t the real God and any human behavior that is coerced isn’t worthy of being called good.

Consumerist religion is somewhat more honest than neo-traditionalism, but it is no more faithful. Consumerist religion proclaims that God wants you to be the very best version of yourself. Anyone with a tiny scrap of authentic faith should be wary of a statement about God that is equally true when made about Mercedes-Benz, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Neiman-Marcus, or Weight Watchers.

Mercedes-Benz, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Neiman-Marcus, and Weight Watchers want you to be the very best version of yourself. Like the promoters of consumer religion, these manufacturers and retailers will happily sell you a wide range of products and services that promise to afford you a high degree of self-satisfaction. The logical and theological absurdity of this position is that it reduces God to being nothing more than a provider of consumer goods; additionally, it reduces human persons to being nothing more than accumulations of fleeting needs. The fact that the consumer commodities being provided (ostensibly, by God), are self-esteem, spiritual accomplishments, and self-righteousness does not lessen the appalling degree of consumerism present in this type of religious practice.

There are, in fact, only a few valid reasons for going to church; these reasons are not only valid but compelling. The Scriptures remind us that it is easy to grow complacent and self-satisfied when things go our way; it is equally easy to grow discouraged and distraught when events or people turn against us. It is also very easy to misplace our trust. Authentic, faithful religious practice engenders real gratitude in our hearts, a gratitude that provides strength even in times of suffering. Authentic, faithful religion lends order to what would otherwise be chaos in our lives. The sense of order that results from a life of faith is not imposed order; rather, it is a peace and tranquility that comes from finding a happy balance for our desires, priorities, anxieties, and plans. Authentic religion directs our trust in ways that avert disillusionment with life.

Authentic religious practice does not lessen human freedom. In fact, the opposite is true. Cultivating a sense of gratitude to God, living an ordered life, and trusting in appropriate ways are signs of true freedom, a freedom in which we choose to be free in our relationships rather than to be driven by the randomness of the universe or our disordered desires.

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians wrote, “The communion of husband and wife is a blessed mystery that reveals to us the relationship of Christ to the Church.” (Eph. 5:32) Our faith is authentic and our salvation is assured when we live as members of the One Body of Christ, the Church.