17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Belonging to Jesus

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ephesians 4:1-6
July 24, 2021

We are examining the “Letter to the Ephesians” this summer. We have already seen that the author demonstrates with extraordinary sensitivity the cosmic nature of Jesus’s incarnation and the literally earth-shattering effects of his death and resurrection. We have also noted that there is much controversy about its authorship. This is not only a very scholarly discussion of word usage, grammatical structure and other technical issues but has become ideological. The author clearly teaches that the “Church” is not an afterthought or an application but was part of the divine plan from the beginning of time. This is a problem for many Protestants but not for Catholics. Also, for us there is no canon (list of writings accepted as revelations from God) within the canon. No writing is more revealed than others. It does not in that sense matter if this was written by the apostle Paul or not. It only matters that the church has accepted it as revealed by God. This letter, as we will see as the summer progresses, is of great and immediate importance for us in Brownstone Brooklyn.

Whoever the author he certainly chose words that could be understood in many ways and is a translator’s nightmare. We will need to look at several examples this week.

At the very beginning of this passage, we read:

Urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, (Eph 4:1)

The Greek word that is translated here as “urge” is Parakaleo. It should be understood as: Exhort. This is the beginning of the second section of the letter and will extend from chapter 4 to chapter 6. The author is assuming that the readers understand the basic points of doctrine and belief. For instance, immediately after the section we read today, he will review the meaning of ministries from apostles to prophets, evangelists to pastors and teachers. This teaching may be found in the earlier letters of Paul (1 Cor 12:28 and Romans 12:6-8) and this author can presume that it has not only been understood but, at least partially, implemented. He is exhorting them not only to continue but is giving them encouragement and connecting this to the overall mission of Jesus.

What is translated here as live (Peripateo) is better understood as “walk”. Today we use the word peripatetic for walking, and the early church was often called the “way.” It means more than obeying the commandments but how one lives every part of one’s life. Jesus gave us everything on the cross and we are expected to return everything by how we conduct our daily lives. This is personal but not private. This way is public in that it is communal but is meant to be seen by and influence others.

This is a call. It comes from God, not us. In ordinary Greek, Kaleo means invitation. Throughout the Bible, Old and New Testaments, this invitation was to a banquet (Luke 14:16-24) or to a vocation. For Christians, this is best expressed as the Kingdom of God which although beginning here and now will be fulfilled only in the future and by God himself. The image here is to act as someone who is being invited to intimacy with a king. Worthy (axios) does not mean that we deserve membership in the kingdom but that we show appropriate gratitude. Our debt to Jesus is never paid by but is acknowledged in our good deeds.

Our next section brings this out more clearly:

with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit
through the bond of peace

(Eph 4:2–3)

The gateway to the Christian “Way” is humility. This would have been both startling and controversial. Humility was not a virtue in the ancient world as indicated in its etymology. The Greeks spoke of “tapeinophrosyne” from phroneo – think – tapeinos – poor – literally “to think poorly of oneself”. It was most often used for slaves and other cast-off people. Christians were the first to see this as a virtue. We read in Luke

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted

(Luke 14:11)

Most shockingly Paul himself attributes humility to Jesus. After telling Christians:

Do nothing out of selfishness
or out of vainglory;
rather, humbly regard others
as more important than yourselves,

(Phil 2 – 3)

He roots this in Jesus himself:

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross

(Phil 6-8)

Gentleness and patience would be more acceptable to ancient peoples, but they are to be understood as being based on humility. Also, the purpose is unity. This would have struck ancient peoples as an odd choice for a destination virtue. Unity might be a means to an end, winning a war, or attaining a desired position, but it was not an end in itself. A person shows virtue by superiority and power. But Christians do not wish to show that he or she is number one but that we are one together. 

This is part of the call from God. Spirit here is the Holy Spirit and should be capitalized. Also, bearing with one another directs our attention to those near us. That is our family and local church (Parish). As we constantly see that however much the author is concerned about cosmic considerations, he nonetheless never loses connection with the world in which we live.

This is followed by the “seven ones”

(1) one body and (2) one Spirit,
as you were also called
to the (3) one hope of your call;
(4) one Lord, (5) one faith, (6) one baptism;
(7) one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.

(Eph 4:4–6)

This unity, which we have come to call catholic, is the product of taking on the humble mind of Jesus. All of this assumes that we are many people who are acting together to be presence of Jesus in the world. That we are in fact the Church.

We will see more of this as the summer progresses, but the basic point is becoming clearer. To change my perhaps over-repeated mantra “belonging comes before believing”: believing and acting like Jesus emerges from belonging to Jesus.