21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 23, 2015
Eph 5: 21-32
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.
About 2 weeks ago there was an op-ed in the NYT by Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, titled “We Need a Servant Leader.” He was writing about what the country needs as we look for a new President. (You may have noticed that there’s a vacancy coming up.)
In recent years this passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians has become controversial, so much that the lectionary now provides an alternate, shorter, politically correct reading that omits 4 verses.
Family life in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century was very different from ours. Fathers ruled absolutely—just like kings and emperors within their political domains. The ideal ruler—of a kingdom or of a family—looked after everyone’s best interest, after what we call “the common good.” In the Bible, the rulers of Israel were compared to shepherds and were supposed to look diligently to the needs of their flock. Of course, human selfishness—sin—often got in the way of that ideal of serving those who depended on the leader, the head, the pater familias.
Paul charges husbands with a far harder task than he does wives: “love your wives as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her,” i.e., gave his life for her, “to sanctify her” (5:25-26). Christ loves the Church absolutely, unconditionally, without any limit, even to the point of giving his life for her. Nowadays we must hold this charge as given not only to husbands but also to wives, that each “nourish and cherish” the other “even as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (5:29-30).
Paul refers to Christ’s sanctifying the Church, cleansing her, presenting the Church to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:26-27). Then he says, “This is a great mystery, … in reference to Christ and the Church” (5:32). Christian matrimony is the sacramental sign of this sanctifying work of Jesus. (In biblical and liturgical language, mystery or mysteries usually refers to such signs, hidden realities expressed thru visual actions and audible words.) Spouses mirror the sacrificial love of Christ for us, his Church. Spouses assist each other in their growth as followers of Jesus, in their becoming holy. In this, there’s no question of who’s “in charge” or who gives orders; rather, it’s a question of listening to Jesus, imitating Jesus, and helping each other (and the kids) do that; of subordinating oneself to Christ, 1st of all, and then to others for their benefit, for the common good of the whole family. Both Jesus and Paul quote Genesis and remind us, “the two shall become one flesh” (5:31; cf. Matt 19:5 and Gen 2:24); marriage, like the Church, isn’t about me but about us. Therefore, “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”