One of the good things about being in front of Mass is that I get to see other people’s expressions. Most of the time, there is no expression at all – but TODAY – I could see lots of furrowed brows, rolling eyes, and people elbowing each other. On this Feast of the Holy Family, Paul gives everyone in the family some instructions – but the one that really makes most of us cringe is when he says, ‘wives be subordinate to your husband’.
I think it shows amazing self-control that more women don’t just get up and walk out of church when he says that! For us today, it might call to mind images of women in Burkas in Afghanistan where the Taliban have degraded women to mere property with no rights, no education, no worth.
Why aren’t we really upset about this? Our natural reaction – I’d say for both women AND men – is to explain it away. Well – Paul was talking to a patriarchal society of the first century and those rules don’t really apply. That is true…Paul wasn’t interested in trying to change the roles of people in society… he wasn’t trying to make waves to improve society, because Jesus was coming back soon and there was no need to try to make waves. (A good example was in his letter to Philemon where he talked about the slave Onesimus and sent him back to his master. He didn’t even TRY to abolish slavery, even though we know today slavery is wrong.) He was basically saying…whatever your responsibilities are, fulfill them to the best of your ability for Christ’s sake.
But – What if the Holy Spirit really is trying to teach us something with this hard reading? What if it really DOES mean for wives to be subordinate to their husband? I’ve been asking around – trying to get a handle on this myself – because I admit that I also cringe when I read it.
We all fall under someone in the chain of command. For example, when Fr. Atilla and I were ordained, we put our hands between the hands of the Bishop and vowed to obey him and his successors. That doesn’t mean that every time we have a decision to make, we have to call the Bishop to ask his permission… but it DOES mean that the Bishop has the responsibility to make sure we’re leading his flock the way HE deems to be appropriate. You see – ALL of us here are actually in the Bishop’s flock. Fr. Atilla is our pastor – he is our local shepherd – but the flock really is part of the Bishop’s flock called the Diocese of Evansville. Even the Bishop, however, falls under a chain of command which goes all the way up to the Pope. This is where our analogy to today’s reading fits the best. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. His flock is Rome….not the whole world. However, because he is also the successor of Peter, the first of the apostles, then he is called the ‘First among equals’ – meaning he has no greater authority over any diocese in the world than the bishop of that diocese. However, in situations where decisions must be made regarding the worldwide church, he has been given the keys to the kingdom…the authority to make the final decision. If you look at how that works – you’ll notice that he doesn’t speak on his own. He always consults with others before declaring anything. It should be the same with a married couple. They ARE equals and all decisions should be based on respectful conversation. Most of the time, either person makes decisions – no questions asked. However, just like in the Church, someone must have ultimate responsibility.
Now – if every man was a saint like Joseph in the Gospel – it would be easy to allow the husband to have ultimate responsibility as the spiritual leader of the family. Notice that Joseph also fell under the chain of command. He must have been a spiritual man – actively seeking God’s will in his life…otherwise he wouldn’t have heard and understood his dreams and acted so quickly to protect his family.
Today’s men – myself included – don’t usually fall into that mold. We are SUPPOSED to be the spiritual leaders of our family…yet how many men live up to that role? How many families come to church while Dad is out hunting, watching the game, sleeping in, working the garage? How many Dad’s insist that the family pray a rosary together? How many Husbands pray for their wife and insist that she take some time for herself on a regular basis? Some do – in fact, there are some great examples of these men in our own parish here….but sadly, many do not.
You see – THAT’s why this teaching grates so much on our nerves – because we KNOW that in today’s world, the WIFE is normally the spiritual leader of the family. In general, men have fallen short and have not picked up the role of spiritual leader well – if at all.
But – maybe that’s why Paul taught this. Maybe it has to do with the psychology of men. We NEED a battle to fight – we need a purpose to our lives. Without a purpose, we fill that need with all sorts of addictions: alcohol, sex, drugs, and work….how many work-a-holic men do you know? Maybe Paul’s teaching is designed to give us men our purpose. Just imagine if every man in our parish would turn our work-a-holic energy toward being the spiritual leader of our family!
I’ve talked to several women about this in the last week to get their opinions, and most of them would LOVE to be subordinate to a husband who had that kind of a mission.
You see – Paul’s command is not about putting women in their place – but it’s about telling every one of us that one of the best ways we live out or Christianity is to fulfill our responsibilities in our family…for the sake of our marriages, for the sake of our children, for the sake of the Church, and for the good of society in general. Strong families make for a strong society – and strong families need to have a strong spiritual leader so that every family is a Holy Family.