Stepping on the Third Rail
St. Angelo of Acri, Capuchin Priest
It’s often observed that Social Security and Medicare are “the third rail of American politics.” That is, no politician in his or her right mind would consider publicly musing about possible changes to these popular programs, even if he or she is motivated by legitimate concerns about their future solvency or the deepening national debt, which now stands at over $21 trillion.
Today’s first reading is considered by some “the third rail of preaching,” and with good reason. In an age where women are rightly asserting their dignity and fundamental equality everywhere from the #MeToo movement to the recently concluded Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, it is jarring to hear a call for women to be “subordinate” to their husbands. This concern is reinforced by some historical distortions of this passage that have been used to justify systems of patriarchy and the oppression of women.
Like many manipulations of the scriptures, those distortions ignore both the context and central points of the passage. Paul wrote this admonition in a culture where married women had few rights and were often considered the property of their husbands. At the same time, he was also trying to promote social stability at a time when some saw the nascent Christian communities and the teachings of Jesus as threats to the social order—a pretty significant concern when you are part of an empire.
Paul looked at the relationship of husband and wife not through the lens of social custom but rather in light of the relationship of Christ and the church—a relationship of mutual devotion and self-sacrifice. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands just as the church is subordinate to Christ. Husbands should lovingly give their lives for the sake of their wives just as Christ offered his life for the sake of the church.
Nearly 2000 years later the church, not to mention the wider world, is still working this out. The mustard seed of fundamental human dignity and equality that Jesus planted has yet to reach maturity. The yeast of love that is at the center of the reign of God has yet to raise the relationships of men and women—inside the church as well as outside—to a fully formed loaf.
It is still a great and unfolding mystery. We must pray and work so that it may continue to unfold. –JC