Today the (in)famous Ephesians reading finds its way into Mass, with its household “subordinate clauses,” which address husbands and wives in chapter 5, and children-parents and slaves-masters in chapter 6. St. Paul (or his disciple) offers, in these two chapters, a vision for the difference Christ makes in the organization of a traditional Greco-Roman household.
What is so often noted are the Greco-Roman elements that grind on our modern sensibilities,
“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” … “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”
What can easily be missed in this are the stunningly subversive Christ-twists added in by Paul. These seemingly subtle insertions radically reconfigure the way this traditional household order is to be understood. To a non-Christian Roman citizen, these lines would have been jarring,
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” … “Masters, act in the same way toward [your slaves], and stop bullying, knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven and that with him there is no partiality.”
We might say, in short, that these Ephesians passages insert a radical mutuality between woman-man and master-slave that is not present in Greco-Roman society. This is what is meant by the introductory Ephesians 5:21 passage, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In the ancient world, these relationships were substantially unilateral ones, with the balance of power massively favoring the husband and slave owner.
What Paul argues here is that, when the agapē-love revealed in Christ crucified enters into human institutions, as when it enters baptismal water or eucharistic bread-wine, it utterly transforms them into something new.
Like a doting grandmother that loads her grandchildren up with hyperglycemic sweets and then leaves it to the parents to endure the volatile consequences, St. Paul loaded the Ephesian Christians up with these volatile hyper-agapē commands and then left it to the later Church to decipher and harness the consequences.
St. John Chrysostom attempted this in his homilies on Ephesians 5,
There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. A servant can be taught submission through fear; but even he, if provoked too much, will soon seek his escape. But one’s partner for life, the mother of one’s children, the source of one’s every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience.
What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of the husband? What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he live with his wife as if she were a slave, and not with a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.
It is difficult for us to appreciate just how unheard of this way of thinking was in 4th century Roman society — which we are constantly reminded of when we read St. John and are amazed at how many times he has to warn husbands to stop abusing their wives.
My favorite line in today’s reading, though, is 5:28,
He who loves his wife loves himself.
This is a twist on the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which makes clear that the commandment means not that self-love is the model for love of neighbor but that your neighbor is your self. “Another self,” you might say, meaning that what you do/don’t do for them you do/don’t do for yourself. To murder is to commit suicide. Their good is your good, and their suffering is your suffering. And, contra Cain, you are your neighbor’s keeper.
In this sense, marriage is the most extreme form of neighbor love as the two become “one flesh,” i.e. the absolute renunciation of all “private property” before the spouse. And so we have in Song of Songs 6:3, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Which is why Paul says (!) in 1 Cor. 7:4,
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Marriage is meant to be a singular prophetic sign that models in extremis, “in the extreme,” for all humanity, and for the church (Acts 4:32!), the way love of neighbor works. Marriage is the supreme school of love for children, for extended family, for the local community and church. Marriage is meant to be the leaven that heals a fractured humanity, that models reconciliation among those who are estranged, that witnesses to the authentic meaning of unity-in-diversity, that offers an example of long-suffering patience between very different people, and that teaches self-sacrifice in the face of suffering, tragedy and hardship.
Marital love stands at the core of God’s redemption of creation and exists for the life of the world, which is why Christ made it a grace-drenched, life-giving, mercy-full, cross-bearing Sacrament. Marriage is “not for me,” as Seth Adam Smith famously said in 2013, but is for my spouse and children, for the church and society. Marriage is love lived “on behalf of all and for all.”
May it be so for all those called to this most exalted and noble form of divine and human love. Amen.