“Brackets? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Brackets!”

There are plenty of passages in the Bible to which people object. I had one of those moments with one of this Sunday’s readings. The fault I found wasn’t in the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:21-32) but in the brackets an editor placed around some of his words. The brackets signify someone’s assessment that “these words are expendable—don’t waste your time with them. They may offend some people, anyway.”

Here’s the text we may or may not be reading this Sunday:

“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.”

In today’s context this sounds not only politically incorrect but downright suicidal for any man to say to his wife. But if you can break through the brackets and read between the lines, what Paul is calling for is loyalty. Yes, these offending lines may be objectionable when spoken about two people, but we’re not talking about two people. In marriage, two become one in God, and God is love. And if He is love, he is also loyalty.

Loyalty is a theme in all three of Sunday’s readings.

In our first from Joshua (Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b) the prophet gathers the leaders of all the tribes of Israel. He challenges their loyalty to God.

“If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

These elders got themselves into trouble with Joshua with their behavior, signaling a desire for separation from God’s love and a divorce from unity with him. But no, they were quick to tell Joshua why they’ll stick with this particular God—and His “services.”

“Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods,” they said. “For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey.”

Those kinds of services are hard for any god to beat!

This love for God sounds awfully conditional to me—the kind of love you give a house when looking for a new address. That’s a shopping situation where you’re interested in all the “services” you can get. Evidently these people were satisfied with our God’s customer service. This is far from the unifying, unconditional love God craves from us and for us. These leaders seemed to be more interested in keeping God’s housing than in sharing his home.

But as we see in our gospel reading (Jn 6:60-69), the people Jesus miraculously fed with a handful of loaves and fishes wanted that food wagon to stay open. Jesus could see they weren’t getting his message about his being the bread of life and the only route to unity with God. Since it looked like Jesus’ food service was about to end, many left his company.

“Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

His 12 disciples were happy to be subservient, not only to Jesus, but to each other. They knew they were all one with the Holy One. So yes, putting brackets around Paul’s advice for wives to be subservient to their husbands is silly. Subservience works among those who are one. It is the secret to thousands of golden and silver anniversaries. It’s the secret to Christianity’s survival past its 2000th anniversary.

This unity in loyalty is the theme of my favorite country song of all time: “It Works,” by Alabama. Let’s close with its beginning:

He rattles his glass, she jumps up fast and pours him a glass of tea; deep in her heart she believes that’s the way it should be.

Yeah, and I’ve seen my dad get fightin’ mad over one little four-letter word; he’ll tell you fast you don’t talk like that around her.

We may not see it the way they see it, we may not do it the way they do it, but she lives her life for him, he’d gladly die for her; and even in this modern age, it works.

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