At Mass, the first reading comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, the second from the Pauline letters, and the last from one of the gospels. The first and third readings follow a theme, but we read from the letters in a more or less linear fashion. So, the general custom is that the priest preaches on the themed readings, leaving the letter from Paul more or less out of the equation. Of course, he can preach on whatever he wants. Priests, though, being -perhaps you’ve noticed- male, wisely run for cover when this reading shows up (on the Feast of the Holy Family). Unless your parish is conservative indeed, you are guaranteed to hear a lovely homily that doesn’t even admit that we heard what we heard. Can’t say as I blame them.
Acknowledging, then, that a priest won’t -and perhaps ought not- touch this one with a ten foot pole, what am I supposed to do with it? Figure it out by myself, apparently. To reject something I read in scripture, I need a pretty rigorous argument, though. The most common arguments that you hear are anything but rigorous. Here are a few...
The Bible is conditioned by time and place. In that time and in that place, women were far from liberated, so Paul’s message wasn’t as atavistic as it seems now. Lame, very lame... Of course, the Bible is conditioned by time and place, but we believe parts of it. If you use that argument, you’d be obliged to reject the whole thing -which we clearly don’t do.
It’s prima facie ridiculous. True enough. It is, but that’s not a good reason for rejecting Paul’s claim. We believe other ridiculous things, after all. The resurrection is, on the face of it, ridiculous. People don’t live again after they’ve died. Nonetheless, we hold the resurrection as one of our most treasured beliefs. Transubstantiation is surely ridiculous, but we believe that.
So, where do I get the authority to claim that we can ignore this contention of Paul’s? I get it from God, in the person of Jesus, and even Paul admits that God outranks Paul. I believe that we can ignore Paul’s command to obey our husbands -and indeed all of his misogynist claims- because they are inconsistent with the message that we hear from Jesus.
Paul is closer to Jesus’ message in his letter to the Galatians, possibly the first of his letters to Christian communities. Galatians 3:28 offers one of the more inclusive definitions of the Christian community. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (NSRV) Clearly, those are not the only sets of opposites he might have chosen, but they cover a lot of ground. And once upon a time in his ministry, Paul was suggesting that barriers between man and women were things of this world rather than part of the reign of God.
Throughout Luke’s gospel, we see that women were an integral part of Jesus’ community of friends. Check out the scenes right after his crucifixion for some good examples. In the early Christian community in Acts of the Apostles, women were an accepted part of the circle. Everybody knows, for example, about Phoebe who served the church as a deacon. And of course, there’s Mary who is so much more than her self-effacing “let it be with me according to your word.” And from John's gospel we have "I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly." An abundant life! My goodness, that’s almost decadent, and it surely has little to do with the impoverished life of confinement and servility that Paul seems to demand.
The question in its starkest terms is whether or not the Bible teaches the inferiority of women. Is patriarchy divinely revealed and therefore God’s will for us? The institutional church certainly struggles with treating women as autonomous moral agents and partners in creation. (And of course secular society is far from free of these problems, either.) But I think scripture is in less doubt.
So, gentlemen, it’s not the case that deep down you have the right to require obedience, but, because you’re enlightened or self-actualized or something, you don’t use it. In fact, there is an empowering and challenging message for women in Scripture; we are called to discipleship, to ministry, to fidelity, and to abundant life -just like the other half of the human species.
Once, a long time ago and in this parish, this reading came up in the cycle. And, as occasionally happens, the scheduled lector didn’t show up in time for Mass to begin. Another lector who just happened to have chosen this Mass, was “volunteered” to read. She was urgently scanning the readings as Mass was about to begin, and her face fell. She turned to the pastor, and asked if there was anything to be done -another reading, any other reading, skip it... something. Please take this cup from her. Nope, it was too late, it wasn’t proper protocol... She took up her cross. She read the reading, and she started to laugh. Wives obey your husbands, indeed! You could tell from the look on her face that she was horrified; she is a person who takes the protocols of Mass very seriously. The congregation, however, was delighted. We laughed for a long, long time -as well we should. I don’t, I confess, remember the homily from that Mass, but I remember our laughter.