The readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) prompt me to share some thoughts with you about choices, decisions, and commitments. Each and every day we consider choices presented to us, and then we make our decisions. There comes a moment when our consideration ends and we raise a choice to the level of our wills, and thereby make it a freely chosen decision.
A decision can be of a short-term sort or of a long-term nature intended to last over a long period of time. Perhaps it a lifetime decision carrying a permanent quality – a “forever” decision. Some of those permanent decisions are raised to the level of vows. They are given and placed in the hands of God; they are made and given in God’s presence, power, and love. Marriage vows and vows to live in a religious community are of that nature.
Being human we all suffer from a weakness imbedded deep within us, namely the Original Sin depicted in the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Because of the Serpent’s temptation their resolve was weakened, their choices and decisions were corrupted, their will-power was compromised and they sinned against the presence, power, and love of God, a condition that has passed down to us in our own weakened humanity.
Choices, decisions, and commitments are rarely, if ever, lived out in tranquility, without difficulties, without trials. Our decisions and commitments need from time to time to be renewed, to be made new again. Our marriage vows and my vow as a priest as well, require renewal. This may be especially so as a consequence of sin, when our vows have been corrupted or even broken.
In the First Reading (Josh 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b) we find Joshua bringing the Israelites to a moment of renewal, asking them to make new again their commitments to God. Joshua you will remember was the leader of the Israelites chosen by God to follow immediately after the death of Moses. Joshua was now the leader of the Israelites. He was their shepherd. They were now in a land surrounded by people who worshipped idols and false gods, people who indulged themselves in selfish pleasures that fractured the bonds of living in community and living with God. Selfishness leads to individualism and isolation; it diminishes caring for others; it fractures living with others in the bonds of loving and caring commitment. And Joshua addresses all the people:
“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. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” But the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods. For it was the Lord, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among the peoples through whom we passed. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
In the Second Reading we hear St. Paul’s (Eph 5:21-32) words addressed to the Christians in the church he founded at Ephesus. They were surrounded by people who indulged themselves in sensuality, men who used women, people who were highly educated and decided for themselves what was right and what was wrong, who made choices and decisions that indulged themselves bringing to others consequences that were anything but good.
When people in our day hear the words of this second reading they are likely to get all caught up in dealing with the roles of men and women in marriage. The word “submission” needs our attention because we are likely to interpret it to mean “subservience.” Actually it means something quite different. Submission really means “sub-missio” – “under the same mission.” St. Paul is asking married men and women to work under the same mission and purpose of marriage, particularly Christian marriage. Christian marriage is entered into with choices and decisions that are placed in the hands of God; Christian marriages are made with vows, with decisions that are intended to last until death. Christian marriage is made with two commitments, the spouses to each other and both of them together to God.
That concept was alien and foreign to the surrounding people who lived in Ephesus, a situation similar to the Israelites living among other people who did not make decisions placing themselves under the purposes God intends for us. St. Paul was addressed husbands in a way he did not address wives. St. Paul flew in the face of the surrounding culture and required that Christian husbands love their wives the way Christ loved His bride the Church. In other words, they were to sacrifice themselves for their wives; they were hand themselves wholeheartedly over into caring for their wives, to crucify their egoistic self-will, their urge to control women by power and force, something the dominant Roman culture promoted. In the pagan world women were regarded as merely useful, an idea totally contrary to the teachings of Christ and the will of God. What St. Paul’s words to the Christians in Ephesus, and elsewhere as well, were hard words. They were a hard saying.
Which brings me to John’s Gospel (6:60-69) account that immediately followed on the gospel accounts we heard over the past few weeks, those accounts in which Jesus declared:
“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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Hearing this, some of Jesus’ own disciples turned and left Him, declaring that what He taught them were hard words. “Who can accept them?” they asked.
I want to emphasize the fact that Jesus did not go after them and call out to them telling them that He was only speaking symbolically or poetically. No, He didn’t qualify what He was claiming. He simply let them go away and then turned to the Twelve Apostles and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter and the Twelve were renewing and reaffirming their original decision to follow Jesus, to follow Jesus no matter what. Theirs were lifetime commitments, commitments that needed reaffirming in spite of their difficulties in understanding what Jesus was teaching, perhaps because they didn’t fully understand what He was telling them and would not until after the Lord’s Supper and after Pentecost when they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
There are many today who will not accept this particular teaching of Jesus. They have decided that it is too difficult to believe. So also with other teachings of our Blessed Lord. Many of them are ignored or outright rejected. Christ asks us, as He asked the Twelve, “Will you also leave?”
Our lives are shaped and determined by our decisions. We are who we are in large measure due to our decisions, some of them made for lifetime, and some of them renewed when necessary. Friendships need to be reaffirmed from time to time. Marriage vows likewise need to be reaffirmed. Commitments are more than just wishful thinking… they require renewal in our hearts and our decisions to be made once again.
Life is a series of choices presented to us, many times the same choices made repeatedly. But as hard as they be, and as difficult as they may sometimes be to fully understand, we are nevertheless who we are because of our decisions. It is love that empowers us. Many times what’s in our heads cannot suffice. It is love that truly motivates husbands and wives to maintain their commitments. It is love that empowers me as a priest to maintain my commitment to you. It is in love that the Son of God gives us His Body and Blood.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of God’s love enliven you, empower you, and bless you always so that you can be all that God dreams you can be.