Going off today’s gospel one wonders how Jesus would have gone as prime minister. After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, ‘This is terrible language. How could anyone accept it?’. Jesus proves unresponsive to polling: aware that his followers are complaining about it, he only responds Does this upset you?, going on to assert something even more demanding. The political result? After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him. Even here, at the desertion of all his followers, Jesus does not change his mind. He simply says to the very last guys, and to us – what about you, do you want to go away too?
It is a fitting question, given how we ourselves can feel after hearing today’s readings: each of the readings challenge us to reflect about what God is really saying to us. But it should not surprise us that we don’t understand and accept all Jesus says immediately – after all, we are not (a) God, (b) inerrant, or (c) free from sin.
Perhaps we can focus far too briefly and incompletely on St Paul’s words: so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything. The first thing is not to fear or run away from the hard bits in Jesus’ words: that would be to act like a closed heart of stone. Likewise it is not an answer to simplistically accuse St Paul of sexism, and sexism is not love, so this is not truly part of God’s Word. While each human author of Sacred Scripture retains their culture and faults, their words nevertheless form part of the Word of the Principal Author, God himself. This is not a problem: one of the attractive aspects of Christianity is how God values and works through human limits and culture.
What then does St Paul mean? His remarks first of all mean a radical service and the gift of the husband’s life for his wife. This is the first measure of a good husband: do I lay down my life constantly for my spouse as a true servant? It’s not just words: it is a requirement Christ makes of any husband in the events of each day.
Some feminisms might take issue with this. A woman doesn’t need a man, might be a first response. That’s true: but that is to misunderstand the whole point of marriage. I don’t get married because I need a guy. I get married because I desire to give myself to this other for the rest of my life on earth in view of their good.
A second response might be But a woman is equal to a man. That’s right: and that is the very point of the man’s service: to serve her nobility and dignity.
A third response might be to argue that the way St Paul speaks encourages violence against women. As a basic reading of the text makes clear, St Paul is writing to prevent that very thing! How, after all, were wives treated in the ancient world? St Paul is writing to bring the light of the gospel to pagan marriage: to point out gentlemen, your wife is not a possession: she is a person, the first one, after God, to whom you must sacrifice yourself. St Paul is in this text thus the advocate of the dignity of women, and also the dignity of men, in a world significantly alien to it.
There are countless ways a man can honor his wife. One simple and powerful way is, each night, to ask her pardon for however he did not love her perfectly that day, and to ask her to pray for him an Our Father or Hail Mary. In this way, a husband highlights her dignity, while being the first, after God, to serve her good.