21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – All Subordinate to Each Other

The Exhortation to the Apostles
James Tissot, 1886-1892, Brooklyn Museum

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” 
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? 
You have the words of eternal life. 
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
(John 6:67-69)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32
August 22, 2021

We read today the most famous or perhaps most infamous section of the Letter to the Ephesians. It examines household relations and contains the line: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands”. It is easy to dismiss this as an artifact of a long-gone civilization, but we do so at our peril.

Before examining it directly, we need to review some background.

It is important to remember that this letter concerns the great mystery of God. For Paul and his disciples, this is God’s plan for the universe. The author skillfully places human concerns and activates within the context of divine will. It would be unusual to say the least if he did examine household life, the place where people actually live.

This letter is also very much about the Church. The author sees the church not as incidental or merely an adaptation to the time but as part of the divine plan from the very beginning. We will see that for him Church and Marriage interpret each other.

Also, it was  written at a specific time and place with its own, cultural and financial realities. The letter is directed to households not families. The nuclear family is a Global North ideal that would have made no sense to them. Indeed, the section following this one contains the rules for children and slaves. As we will see, even the relationship between parent and child is fundamentally different from that of husband and wife.

Finally, the ancient world was essentially hierarchical, everyone reported to someone else. Yet Jesus ’s death and resurrection broke down all barriers. How then can a Christian navigate both worlds? This was a key question for Paul and his followers, and we must examine it first.

Paul tells us that for the baptized:

There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free person,
there is not male and female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

(Ga 3:28)

Yet the Church lived in a world with slavery and Ephesians itself will give instructions on how Christians should treat their slaves.

Also, the church herself was from the very beginning hierarchical:

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers;
then deeds of power,
then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues

(1 Co 12:28)

Paul recognized a deeper reality:

For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”
But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,”
it is plain that this does not include the one
who put all things in subjection under him.
When all things are subjected to him,
then the Son himself will also be subjected
to the one who put all things in subjection under him,
so that God may be all in all.

(1 Co 15:27–28)

Our reading today begins with:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ

(Eph 5:21)

As we have seen previously, unlike other ancient religions, Christianity made humility a virtue. Jesus himself was the greatest of all, because he gave himself totally to and for all. Everything that will follow must be interpreted accordingly. Relationships must be based on love.

We see that in the next line.

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.

(Eph 5:22)

This leaps up from the page at us. It would have for the original audience as well but for a different reason. It does not say “obey”. Children and slaves will be told to obey, not wives.

The reason is found in the next line:

For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

(Eph 5:23–24)

The author is creating a Jesus/Church and husband/wife parallel. His mind naturally thinks in hierarchical terms as would his audience, but he knows that it cannot be based on power alone.

The section which follows clarifies the meaning of love. Christ’s love is sacrificial and therefore the husband should sacrifice himself for his wife. This is rarely literal and in practice meant to recognize her as his equal and seek her good regardless of the circumstances. This would not win him the esteem of his neighbors who no doubt would consider him weak.

Sanctification by a cleansing bath reflects Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper as much as baptism. The husband must serve his wife as a body servant as Jesus did for the apostles. (Philippians 2:6-8)c

We are told as well that in marriage the man shall “be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Eph 5:31)

The Letter to the Ephesians speaks often of the church and that Christ is her head, one with the church. This is the kind of head the husband is exhorted to be.

The author returns to his basic theme “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32)

God’s plan as the Letter to the Ephesians so painstakingly reminds us, extends from the movement of the stars to the rise and fall of empires to the establishment of the church to a harmonious household. It is indeed a great mystery.

I think we read this section of the letter incorrectly. It is obvious that it comes from a different time and place. Direct applications to today are strained to say the very least. Not only is the household model of living not part of our experience but what we acknowledge as families has broadened tremendously in my lifetime. As an only child who never married and was raised by a widowed mother, my reality is that families are as much constructed as inherited.

Yet I think there is something of eternal value here. The author sees that the relationship of husband and wife is fundamentally different from all others. It is by far the clearest example of the love that Jesus has for us as individuals and as a community. If we want to know what the church should be look at successful marriages. Look at how these unions have worked out shared responsibilities and indeed have shared love.

How great would St. Charles Parish be if we were all subordinate to each other?