The Good Shepherd, Thomas Cole, 1848,
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 18, 2021
Last week we began our reading of “The Letter to the Ephesians” by examining the majestic opening blessing. We suggested that we view it as an overture previewing many of the letter’s themes. Today, we will look at what it means to be chosen and how this is accomplished through the “blood of Jesus.”
Much of this will be extremely specific but let us begin with a more general observation. When examining the scriptures, we can miss the forest for the trees. There is much value in looking at one author by himself and seeing how the ideas and insights reflect his specific situation and perspective. This is particularly fruitful with the Gospels. Some commentators will refer to instances only within that particular gospel. Yet even here knowing by way of comparison how certain experiences and teachings were examined by other writers can be very helpful. Next week, we will read the multiplication of the loaves in Mark. He has a specific understanding of this event which differs even from Matthew and Luke, the Gospels which most resembles his. It is helpful to contrast them. The lectionary, the book of scripture readings for the Mass, will then switch to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel and we will read the bread of life discourse for most of August. This examines some of the same themes but with a different emphasis. This will give us a wider perspective and it is true with St Paul as well. As we noted last week there are some, perhaps a majority, of scholars who believe that “The Letter to the Ephesians” was written by a disciple of St Paul a generation after his death. It is therefore important to quote from earlier letters undoubtedly written by Paul to reveal the essential continuity. Also, examining other parts of Scripture will demonstrate that the New Testament writings preach the same message: the good news of our liberation in Christ.
This is especially important with today’s reading; the author of Ephesians is using different language, but he is reflecting some of the same insights as the other writers of the New Testament.
The author of Ephesians calls Jesus our peace. The Greek word is Eirēnē but when it is used in a Jewish context it reflects the Hebrew word Shalom. Shalom means wholeness or complete harmony. Shalom is the kingdom of God. This is harmony between God and humanity, humanity itself and, particularly important in this letter, harmony between humanity and nature. This peace, like the kingdom, is God given and cannot be attained by our efforts. It also is already here but not yet in its fullness.
We can obtain this only by Jesus. We are indeed boldly told today that shalom peace is through his, (Jesus’s) flesh which meant through “the cross putting that enmity to death by it.” He is speaking to a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles. Like St Matthew’s community the church would have begun as predominately Jewish but had become more gentile and perhaps by this writing predominately Gentile. As we saw with Matthew last year this requires great delicacy and tact as well as forcefulness.
The author begins today by saying:
But now in Christ Jesus(Eph 2:13)
you who once were far off
have become near
by the blood of Christ.
Far off was an expression used by Jews for those who wished to become Jews. They went from apart to within the family. This was difficult as Jews and Gentiles had conflicting perceptions of each other. Jews saw Gentiles as unclean, and Gentiles saw Jews as clannish and unwelcoming. Many however admired the moral teachings of the Jews and were attracted to Judaism but found the process of becoming a Jew too cumbersome and difficult. Note that the barrier to conversion was not the moral teachings of the Jews that was the attraction; rather the ritual and cultural trappings: the 10 commandments welcomed, kosher repulsed.
For Paul this is what Jesus abolished by his death and resurrection and we participate in that through our baptisms. Paul’s consistent teaching is that it is this which broke down the walls between Jew and Gentile. We read in the letter to the Galatians:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ(Ga 3:27–29)
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
And if you belong to Christ,
then you are Abraham’s offspring,
heirs according to the promise.
The Kingdom is for all and contains no walls. He writes:
that he might create in himself(Eph 2:15–16)
one new person in place of the two,
thus establishing peace,
and might reconcile both with God,
in one body, through the cross,
putting that enmity to death by it.
This body is the Church, formed in his blood and is the universal means to Kingdom peace. There is not one way for Jews and other for Gentiles all have access in one Spirit to the Father. Born Jews needed to remember that they were also saved as the Gentiles in Christ, but the Gentiles needed to know that they could not understand their liberation without knowing Jewish concepts and indeed history. This was not easy and as we saw with the letters of John when a sense of Jewishness was lost chaos was found.
A healthy sign of our times is the emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness. We in the northern world need no longer be dependent on whatever leadership a white male elite can provide. This is a good first step and as citizens we must work for an even wider distribution of power and responsibility. The stranglehold of meritocracy on our imaginations would be an apt target for widespread investigation.
But we are also Christians and bring another dimension. As “The Letter to the Ephesians” shows us in so many ways that under everything and drawing everything is the Cosmic. Unity whether of Jew and Greek, male and female, black and white, educated, and uneducated is wonderful in itself, but also a sign of the peace that God created and redeemed us to experience.
As we begin to reawaken our parish let us remember that we must cast aside all barriers and seek to reflect the peace for which we were created and redeemed. It will be difficult but remember the words of St. Matthew who with the author of Ephesians proclaimed the same message, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Mt 5:9)