Paul's Letter to the Ephesians - Another Look

A Call to Discernment

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  August 26, 2018

On March 19, 2016, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” – The Joy of Love.  Following not just one, but two successive synodal gatherings of bishops, theologians, married couples, and experts on various aspects of family life, Francis wrote a letter to the Church reminding us of the central importance of marriage and the family in contemporary society.  His spirituality of the family emphasizes the virtues of generosity and commitment, of patience and fidelity, of a love whose fruit is joy.  At the same time, he acknowledged many of the real difficulties families have to contend with today, and the many pressures that strain and weaken family ties.  Finally, Pope Francis calls us to discernment: rather than merely imposing on people a set of moral rules to blindly follow, he calls them to develop the capacity to look realistically at the concrete situations in which they find themselves, consider the options carefully and prayerfully, and in that light, to make the most loving and best decision possible.  Even when things in your life seem to be in a mess, God is with you in that mess.  We can draw on the help of God, of our loved ones in the family, and of our Christian community, to support us and assist us in the challenge of living love in marriage and the family.

This weekend, Pope Francis is in Ireland, giving the last keynote address and celebrating the closing Mass at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.  With its overaching theme, “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World”,  tens of thousand of people - from all over the world and from all shapes and sizes of families - have spent the past week in Dublin.  They have been networking, praying, attending conferences and workshops, and celebrating the gift of family life to the church and the world.  They have been reflecting on many of the issues confronting today’s families: the role of technology and social media, the dynamics of conflict and violence, the impact of separation and divorce on children, the challenge of placing faith at the heart of the family in a secular world, difficulties related to poverty, war and displacement.  They have also been looking at the evolving understanding of women’s leadership in family and society, and the challenge of welcoming LGBT indidivudals and their families in our churches.

I must say that when I looked at the readings for this Sunday, and made the connection with the World Meeting of Families, my first question was – “Wow, I wonder how Pope Francis is going to handle the second reading!” (In case you were distracted, it is the famous – or infamous – “Husbands, love your wives; wives, be subject to your husbands” passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.)

It’s a tough one.  Although it is one of the suggested texts in the marriage lectionary, in twenty-seven years as a priest this week, I have had exactly one couple select it for use in their wedding ceremony.  It’s not hard to understand why.  When quoted out of context, or used to justify systems of oppression and abuse of power in family and society, it has done untold damage and driven many people - especally many women - away from our Church communities.  At the same time, when you read it in context, it contains a message that we need to hear, especially in a world where the structures of family life are weakened by the stress which our consumer society places upon wives and husbands, children and parents.  So, although it was tempting to skip over this text and move straight to the Gospel, I thought it was worth looking at what a deeper appropriation of Paul’s message might be saying to us today. 

It think the first mistake is to place our entire focus on that one line which most offends our modern ears. "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church."  Often, we only hear this part of the text quoted, and assume that Paul is what our age calls a misogynist - someone who hates or demeans women. 

In fact, Paul did not hate women;  if you read the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles, you learn quickly that many of his closest collaborators in the ministry of spreading the Gospel and establishing new churches were women.  Paul esteemed these women highly, and it is unfortunate that their role in the apostolic Church has not been adequately recognized: Lydia the cloth merchant, Phoebe the deaconess, the couple Priscilla and Aquila, who like Paul were tentmakers and led the church in Ephesus, and the whole list of women Paul specially greets at the end of Romans. These demonstrate that Paul truly believed what he wrote to the Galatians: "There is no longer Gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28)

At the same time, even after his deep conversion to Christ, Paul continued to share the assumptions of his time about the right ordering of society, and among these was his view of the relationship between men and women in marriage.  Whether we look at the Greeks, the Romans, or the Jews, the subjugation of woman to man was taken for granted, and women had no real legal standing, no rights in our modern sense of the word.  Living his life in the expectation of Christ's imminent return, Paul was more focused on preaching the Gospel and establishing new churches, to bring the message of Christ to the ends of the earth.  Because of this single-minded passion, his priority was not the reform of social or family structures, but to show that no matter what our  state in life, we are all called to pattern our lives on the self-giving, sacrificial love of Christ, who laid down his life for those he loved. 

For this reason, Paul invites Christians of his time - and of all times - to "be imitators of Christ, as God's beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us." And then, in the context of our relationships, he says:  "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."

When our modern ears hear "be subject", we recoil.  We think that Paul means be submissive, be docile, be a doormat.  We prize independence, freedom, doing what we want, when we want.  We don't want to be subject to anybody.  And yet in a world where everybody does what they want when they want, without regard to the consequences of these choices for others, we end up in chaos or anarchy, what Paul calls elsewhere "using your freedom as an excuse for self-indulgence."

Paul says, "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."  He applies this first to the whole pattern of relationships in our lives, and then more concretely to the family context.  That a wife should be subject to her husband was nothing new in Paul's time; it was the universal social expectation.  What is radically new, however, is the notion that the example of Christ's self-giving love was a pattern that both men and women were expected to replicate in their marriage relationship.  A word of advice to men: before you cite this passage too quickly, remember what it calls you to do: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."  Love your wives by nourishing them and tenderly caring for them, as you would for your very self.  And then Paul speaks of the sacramentality of marriage: that when a husband and wife come to love each other in this deep and self-giving way, their love becomes an icon, a living and breathing sign of Christ's love for his bride, the Church. 

Paul goes on from here to describe how children should be subject to their parents, and slaves should obey their masters. And none of us, I would hope, is planning to start a movement to restore slavery! Paul’s point is not to impose one particular model of family or social organization on all people for all times. 

His goal is to proclaim a Gospel that could be Good News for all people, whatever their race or gender or social status: whether you are Gentile of Jew, slave or free, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, cleric or lay; no human obstacle should prevent any of us from experiencing the love of God in Jesus Christ, and responding to that love, whatever the situation in which we happen to find ourselves. 

Because Christ is not dead but alive, our faith is a living, growing, developing reality: our faith incarnates itself in different social and historical contexts, discerning what is good in them, rejecting that which is contrary to the Gospel. Christ's authority is always one of humble service. Time and again, Jesus tells his disciples that they are not to imitate worldly models of leadership, lording it over people and controlling them, but that the one who wants to be great must make himself the servant of all.  Christ's royalty is not of golden robes and palaces, but a crown of thorns and a love which was so self-emptying that it led him "even unto death, death on a cross."  Those of us who claim to be his disciples commit ourselves to following his example. 

As I read the reports of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on the literally hundreds of priests charged with the sexual abuse of minors in six different dioceses, it was extraordinarly painful to think that those who claimed to serve in the name of Christ could so cruelly and heartlessly exploit the innocence of children and teenagers – and that those who should have listened and acted to stop these crimes from re-occurring often seemed more concerned with the welfare of the priest, and the reputation of the Church, then with protecting and defending the flock from wolves in shepherd’s clothing.  Pope Francis has called us all to pray and fast in solidarity with the victims, but he is also calling to an end to clericalism and to enforceable structures of transparency and accountability for bishops and church leaders, so that this wound may be cleansed, healed, and never repeated again. 

This perhaps leads us to hear Paul’s words in a new light.  Read correctly, they are not to be used as a way of justifying power and control – whether of husbands over wives, parents over children, or clerics over laity in the Church.  They are in fact an invitation to move from a model of self-seeking domination, to one of mutual cooperation and self-giving love.  This doesn’t come easy to us.  Self-giving, in the concrete circumstances of family life or church life, often means self-emptying.  It includes giving up my need to win every argument, listening not just to the words someone is saying, but the feelings and wounds which lie beneath them. 

It means recognizing that sometimes, I may have to surrender my personal needs or desires, legitimate though they might be, for the greater good of our life as a couple, or family, or church community. It means coming to honour the areas of limitation and woundedness of those we love, treating them with sensitivity and compassion.  

Although all of us are imperfect and yes, sinful, we are still called to pattern our love on Christ, who loves us with an eternal and unconditional love.    Christian marriage is not a contract in which I promise to love you to the extent that you respond to my needs and give me what I want, but a mutual relationship in which each spouse pledges to love the other: especially when they are struggling, when they may seem most unloveable.  It is an adventure  in which each partner helps the other to become the person God has called them to be, by embodying tender and unconditional love.  

Is this difficult?  You bet it is.  Many people don't really want to hear it, even when deep down, it is the kind of love they desire.   In today's Gospel, our fifth and last Sunday on the bread of life discourse, Jesus concludes by telling his disciples that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, unless they accept this self-gift of love which he offers, they will have no life within them.  Many of them couldn't accept this radical dependence on Jesus: "This teaching is difficult”! (Other translations read 'this language is intolerable'); who can accept it?"  And we are told that many of them left. 

There are many who have left our communities too over issues of family and sexuality.  Many have left – and indeed, are leaving – over the most recent revelations of sexual abuse and ecclesiastical cover-up.  Some leave because they experienced harsh judgments and rejection instead of compassionate support.  Others leave  because they are confronted with an ideal they cannot or do not know how to live up to, rather than helped to see that all of us live in the struggle between the ideal and the reality of their lives, and that God is with us, loving us in and through the struggle.  But many of us have stayed, and others are in the process of returning.  Why are we still here?  Perhaps it is because we know that even when they seem too difficult for us, the words that Jesus, speaks to us are indeed "spirit and life", the promise of new and abundant life.  And so, with Peter, we respond: "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." Amen!!