Readings: Ephesians 5:21-33; Psalm 128; Luke 13:18-21
The readings today give us three domestic parables. It goes without saying that Jesus is wiser than Paul and perhaps we see it in a practical way here in the fact that his parables are so simple whereas Paul seeks to spell out the analogy based on marriage. In doing so he gives many hostages to fortune.
The two parables of Jesus could hardly be shorter. To what can the kingdom of God be compared? It is like a mustard seed which a man sows, it grows into a big shrub, and the birds come to make their nests in it. It is like the yeast which a woman adds to three measures of flour and eventually it is all leavened. That's it. No allegories, no commentaries, think about either of these situations and meditate on how the kingdom of God is like it. They are rich and wonderful.
Paul gives a much fuller explanation of the ways in which the relationship between Christ and the Church can be compared to marriage. His intention also is to keep us focused on the mystery of Christ and the Church, the mystery of the kingdom of God. The analogy he offers has a long biblical history. God is the husband of Israel and she is his wife. Jesus speaks of himself as the bridegroom inviting his disciples to continue to use the analogy, now in speaking about the relationship between Christ and his body, the Church.
But things get in the way of our meditating serenely on this passage. It has been used in the course of the centuries to support discrimination against women. There are some places where it is now considered unsuitable for celebrations of marriage. Social and political arguments about the equality of the sexes and the roles of men and women gather around as we listen to this reading and distract us from its main focus. Here is another domestic parable, an analogy, that teaches us important things about the kingdom of God. But its use over the centuries, and some of its phrases, make it a stumbling block.
One might begin to list the points that weigh against a discriminatory interpretation of this 'profound mystery': be subject to one another (it is mutual, not one-sided), out of reverence for Christ (the focus is on Christ), love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (this is the counterpart to the wife's obedience which represents our obedience to Christ), a husband loves his wife as his own body (the union is the most intimate possible), nourishing and cherishing her as Christ nourishes and cherishes the church (the mystery is the love of Christ for the Church).
The sowing of a mustard seed and the placing of yeast are rich subjects for meditating on the mystery of the kingdom, but neither has become a sacrament of the Church. Marriage, however, the fundamental domestic reality, is a sacrament of the Church, In some ways it is the paradigmatic sacrament since all the sacraments establish, express, and celebrate the nuptial relationship between Christ and the Church, the covenant of life and love that binds the believer to Christ in the Church.
Acknowledging the difficulties this text generates for us we must, nevertheless, continue to listen to it and to meditate on its teaching, to try to glimpse the mystery. I can never hear it without thinking of the old Anglican marriage service during which the woman said to the man, but not he to her, that she will obey him. What a shocking thing, we might now say. But the man said to the woman, but not she to him, that he will worship her. Is that even more shocking?