18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 2, 2015
Eph 4: 17, 20-24
Iona College, New Rochelle
“You must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (Eph 4: 17).
This is the 4th Sunday, out of 7, in which we’ve been reading from Paul’s Letter to the Christian community at Ephesus—an important seaport on the coast of what is now western Turkey. Today Ephesus is only an archeological site with interesting Greek and Roman ruins and the site of the house where the Virgin Mary is reported by tradition to have lived her last years with the Apostle John.
This Christian community, converted by Paul himself, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles (ch. 19), was mostly Greek, not Jewish; therefore mostly Gentiles, converted pagans. So Paul refers to their former way of life, which included not only idolatry—the worship of Zeus, Athena, Dionysius, and the rest of the Greek pantheon—but also the practice of various vices: “your former way of life, corrupted thru deceitful desires” (4:22). We may suppose that Paul is referring here, 1st of all, to various forms of sexual immorality; but also to drunkenness (he refers to that in 5:18, which we’ll hear in a couple of weeks) and excessive eating; gambling; gladiatorial contests; greed; cheating and fraud; lying and slander; jealousy and envy; unwillingness to forgive and the seeking of vengeance; factions and dissensions within the community. Those are some of the sins that Paul lists in other letters, and certainly we can suppose that they existed at Ephesus too—as they seem to exist everywhere, including among us.
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Paul calls all of this “futility” (4:17). It leads us nowhere, at least nowhere we want to go. Such behavior breaks up homes and families, destroys businesses and friendships, produces wars and other forms of violence. Rather than satisfying us, a pagan way of life frustrates us.
Therefore, Paul urges his converts, his friends, “you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted thru deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds”—because our conversion must begin within, in our hearts, in our attitudes, before our behavior will change—“and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (4:22-24). Paul has already introduced them to this new way (new for them), God’s way, revealed to us in Christ, this way of righteousness and truth. This is the way that satisfies the ultimate desires of our minds and hearts and souls: to know goodness and truth and authentic beauty. It remains good advice for us today because our lives, too, constantly need conversion.
Our ongoing conversion is not helped by the age we live in, the culture around us, which seems to be shedding rapidly the influences of religion and be adopting a neo-paganism.
Maybe the shock engendered by the recent Planned Parenthood videos will wake the nation to the barbarity of destroying human life, to the ugliness of turning human beings into commodities to be bought and sold. Or maybe it will blow over, and society will close its eyes again and go along with the lies of “choice,” “the war on women,” “it’s my body,” “it’s just a lump of tissue,” etc. Maybe when a polygamy or an incest lawsuit reaches the Supreme Court we’ll realize the foolishness of “marriage equality” and “freedom to marry whomever you love.” Or maybe not.
Our country was founded on the premise of truth—not your truth or my truth, some arbitrary belief or inclination or feeling, but on eternal truth: “we hold these truths to be self-evident…,” truths resting upon the Creator of the universe. Take away the Creator, bring in a self-referenced paganism, and truth evaporates into moral and social chaos, everyone’s opinion as true as anyone else’s, everyone’s claims as valid as anyone else’s, every man for himself—a state of what the 18th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes called homo homini lupus: men are wolves toward each other. That’s the futility of the Gentile or pagan way of thinking and acting.
“That is not how you learned Christ,” Paul remarks (4:20). Not only have we committed ourselves to living in a holy manner according to the ways of God taught to us by Christ (cf. 4:21), but we commit ourselves to living in a holy manner, a virtuous manner, in the face of a pagan world—as the earliest Christians did. We will maintain our commitment to the truths of human dignity regardless of age, race, gender, or social status; of sexual complementarity; of marriage as an institution for fostering new life; of this world’s goods given by God for the benefit of all and not just of a few. Not only will we maintain our commitment personally, but we’ll do what we can to keep these truths alive in society—because it’s truth that leads us to harmony and justice, truth that sets us free, truth that enables us to be the people God created us to be.
As Catholic Christians we can’t become hermits—go off and live in our own Amish-style world. Christ has sent us into the world to make it new, to give it life, to win over the pagans—because what we have is universally appealing: goodness, truth, and beauty. In their hearts everyone wants these things; the pagans seek them in the wrong places. We can show them the right places: in virtue, in a healthy relationship with God based on the “truth that is in Jesus” (4:21), in joy, in our care for our brothers and sisters—in short, “in God’s way of righteousness and holiness.”