Tuesday of Week 30 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 5:21-33

In today’s reading Paul begins speaking about family relationships and, specifically, about the relationship between husband and wife. As we go through the first part of the reading we WILL feel a certain level of discomfort as it, in part, certainly conflicts with attitudes which prevail in contemporary society.

Two points must be made:

First, the reading reflects the prevailing attitudes of Paul’s day, and it could not be otherwise. We certainly do not have to accept all of these attitudes now.

Second, the reading must taken in its entirety and, under the cultural overlay, we have to discern the very deeply Christian ideal which Paul proposes and which, in many respects, represents a major step forward in the concept of married life.

Paul’s central message is right there in the opening sentence: “Give way to one another in obedience to Christ.” Marriage is built on a deep, mutual respect of each partner for the other.

Paul will show how, in each relationship, each partner can have a conciliatory attitude that will help that relationship. The phrase “Be subject to one another” was probably not originally part of the traditional material that follows, but derives from the author.

It is debated whether the exhortation is applicable only to the section on wives and husbands, or also includes the following passages on the mutual relationship between parents and children, masters and slaves (from Col 3:18-23).

The opening statement, “Give way to one another in obedience to Christ”, at first seems to be contradicted by the way Paul immediately speaks of the way the wife should respect her husband. She is to look on her husband as the head of the household similar to the way that Jesus is Head and Lord of the Church. And the wife should submit to her husband in the same way that Church submits to Jesus her Lord (in this time, wives sometimes addressed their spouse as “Lord”).

To “submit” means giving up some of one’s own rights to another. If the relationship called for it, as in the military, the term could connote obedience, but that meaning is not called for here. In fact, the word “obey” does not appear in Scripture with respect to wives, though it does with respect to children and slaves. In context too, this “submission” is seen as primarily given to God through the husband, just as we say that we love God by loving those around us, or for the Religious, obeying God by obeying their superiors.

Certainly this way of speaking reflects the prevailing ethos of the Paul’s time (and, we should not forget, it still prevails in many societies in our own day) but it has increasingly become unacceptable in Western society. As it is presented here, the wife is seen to be in an inferior position to her husband. This is not acceptable to the contemporary woman who may see her role in marriage as different and complementary, but NOT unequal.

In a sense, too, while Paul seems to use the relationship of Jesus with the Church as an example of the relationship of the husband to the wife, in fact, it is the love of Christ for his Body, the Church, which is the very model of Christian marriage. And, Paul’s emphasis is not on obedience and submission but rather on a mutual, self-giving love.

Paul, then turns to the husband and what is expected of him. The total picture probably goes far beyond what the average Gentile husband of the time would have found acceptable. Paul begins by saying that the “husband is the head of his wife” just as Christ is the “head of the church” and the “Saviour of the Body”. The church does recognise Jesus Christ as Lord, but it also knows that that Lord gave his life in love and service for each one of us. There is a very nuanced concept of “head” here. As the husband is seen having a kind of authority over his wife just as Jesus has over his church, there is also a sense of responsibility for the well-being of the partner. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as the church is to Christ. But the Christ we submit to is one who forgives and loves and nurtures and who takes care of our needs through his Body, the community.

By drawing a parallel between a human marriage and the marriage of Christ to his church, these two concepts are made to illumine each other. Christ is the spouse of the church because he is her head and because he loves the church just as a man loves his own body when he loves his wife. The model of the husband’s love for his wife is the love that Christ showed for the Church by giving his life for it to make it holy. Even the wife has not been asked to love her husband to that degree. The analogy between the relationship of Christ to the church and that of the husband to the wife is basic to the entire passage.

Speaking of the Church as the bride of Christ, Paul says that he (Christ) had washed her clean in water “with a form of words”. This would seem to point to the sacrament of Baptism. So that when Christ took the Church to himself it was “glorious, with no speck or wrinkle…but holy and faultless”.

It was customary in the Middle East, at the time this letter was written, for the “sons of the wedding” to escort the bride to her husband after she had bathed and dressed. As applied mystically to the Church, Christ washes his bride himself in the bath of baptism, and makes her immaculate (note the mention of a baptismal formula) and introduces her to himself.

Husbands, then, are to love their wives in exactly the same way, with the same degree of care and tenderness. They are to give the same love to their wives as they do to their own bodies. And, in fact, in loving their wives in this way, they are also loving themselves. And just as healthy men care for their own bodies, Christ loves his Body, the Church, of which we are its “living parts”.

Finally, Paul, quoting from the book of Genesis, sums up the reality that is a true marriage: where a man leaves his parents, becomes joined to his wife and the two become one “flesh”. It is clear that, in spite of the impression given in the first part, Paul sees marriage as a totally reciprocal relationship. The basis for such expressions of self-giving love is the quotation from Genesis. If the husband and wife become “one flesh”, then for the man to love his wife, is to love one who has become part of himself.

Paul also makes this Genesis text a prophecy of the marriage of Christ and the Church: a mystery, like that of the salvation of the pagans, that has been hidden but is now revealed.

All of this, it would seem, proposes a degree of love and intimacy and care for the wife which went far beyond the customary demands of the time. There would be little problem in a wife “submitting” to such a tender and caring husband. It is, in fact, a call for a total giving of the one to the other. Both give and receive all the love that each can give and receive.

Paul calls it a “mystery” and indeed it is a reality which we can never fully understand. The profound truth of the union of Christ and his “Bride”, the Church, is beyond unaided human understanding. It is not that the relationship of husband and wife provides an illustration of the union of Christ and the Church, but that the basic reality is the latter, with marriage a human echo of the relationship.

A Christian marriage, then, is a living out of the union of Christ with his bride, the Church. And nowhere else in our human experience do we see the love of Christ for his Bride more clearly exemplified.

Paul then concludes the passage by summing up: the husband is to love his wife as he loves himself; his wife is to respect her husband. The reciprocal is also true – the husband is to respect his wife and she is to love him as she loves herself.

More than two thousand years after this was written, we could hardly express it better.

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