The Good Shepherd, c. 300–350,
at the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome (Wikipedia)
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2023
We have all heard that Christians must be in the world but not of it. The author of Ephesians today shows us that this idea was with us from the beginning. As we have seen when we examined the letter to the Colossians last year and Ephesians the year before, we are not sure if these letters were written by Paul or a successor. The church has clearly taught that both are inspired and trustworthy. Let us keep in mind that Paul wrote in Romans that “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:2). There is at least continuity. These are the concerns of cosmopolitan urban Christians: now as well as then.
Paul’s missionary strategy, as we will see in the readings from the Acts of the Apostles after Easter, was to visit major trading cities where there were Jews already present. He would then speak to them in the synagogues and then seek to attract Gentiles. We read of his mission to Ephesus in Acts 19. He left his associate Apollos in Corinth and went to Ephesus, also a great trading city. There is found some disciples of John the Baptist, instructed them in the way of Jesus and gave them the spirit by laying hands on them. After this he spoke so effectively to the Gentiles that an idol maker organized a revolt. He spent three years at Ephesus and knew the people well. It is therefore interesting that he only mentions one by name in the letter. This indicates that it was most likely written to all Christians who looked to Paul for inspiration. We can assume that they would have shared some of the characteristics of the Ephesians. They were urban, by now mostly Gentile and we saw so often with the Corinthians wanting to do good but often not knowing how.
Although most were not born Jews, they, like many pagans would have held the Jews in high esteem for their ethical and moral commitment. The requirement of circumcision was daunting for many adult males, but curiosity remained. Paul’s preaching would have allowed them to enjoy the benefits of Judaism without having to become a Jew. As again we saw so often in other letters written to predominantly Gentile communities there was backsliding.
Thus, we read:
Be sure of this,
that no immoral or impure or greedy person,
that is, an idolater,
has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Let no one deceive you with empty arguments,
for because of these things
the wrath of God is coming upon the disobedient
There would be people attracted to the Church who would be insufficiently catechized. They did not know as much as they thought they did or were not willing to begin a new life with Jesus. Therefore, they would try to keep pagan ways and beliefs. They are as we see here to be totally repudiated. “So do not be associated with them” (Eph 5:7).
This is easier said than done. They lived in cities and people had to be around every sort of person. It is helpful to know that the word translated here as associated means partner. (Summetochos) We can move next door to them, but we are not to join our lives to theirs.
Our section begins by reminding these Gentiles where they came from:
For you were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light
Darkness is ignorance, light is knowledge. Ignorance is death. Previously the author wrote:
You were dead in your transgressions and sins
in which you once lived following the age of this world,
following the ruler of the power of the air,
the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient
We see immediately that we have not just received the light, we are the light. We have become light because we are united to Jesus. Our light is from him not from ourselves or any other source. Also, what has been translated here as “live” is more accurately walk (peripateō). Walk means make it visible. Far from hiding we should be seen as a follower of Christ in public.
This public living of our beliefs will produce the fruits of light:
For light produces every kind
of goodness and righteousness and truth
This pubic and practical faith requires that we obtain practical knowledge:
Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord
The word translated here as learn (dokimazō) is better understood as discern or test. We need to know the law but also how to apply it and we truly learn by doing.
Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness;
rather expose them
Part of the effectiveness of the image of light is that it has the sense of revelation. Someone who is living the Christian life reveals who others are as well. The Jerusalem Bible translates this as: “show them up for what they are.”
As we have seen so many times in our own world with conspiracy theorists and others with intractable beliefs, only a well lived life provides the credibility to reveal the truth:
Tor it is shameful even to mention the things
done by them in secret
Thus, idle talk with get us nowhere. It is only by walking in faith that we can bring the light to others and indeed convert them to the way of light,
But everything exposed by the light becomes visible,
for everything that becomes visible is light.
He concludes this section with part of a Baptismal hymn.
Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light
This is based on two passages from Isaiah:
Rise up in splendor! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you,
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples
But your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise;
awake and sing, you who lie in the dust.
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the land of shades gives birth
It tells the person to be baptized that he or she was morally asleep but now shall awakened. It is an invitation to repentance.
The light we bring is part of the divine plan. We are the Body of Christ, his presence in the world. We are called not to run in disarray from it but to walk with dignity into it. This has been a constant Christian theme. Indeed, one of the best formulations of it was by the great American historian H. Richard Niebuhr seventy years ago in “Christ and Culture”. (Several references to it may be found in the appendix below.) He wrote after the Second World War when Christians had refused to be the light and plunged the world into darkness. What else can we expect when Christians forget that we are in the world to set it on fire?
His most famous work is Christ and Culture. It is often referenced in discussions and writings on a Christian’s response to the world’s culture. In the book, Niebuhr gives a history of how Christianity has responded to culture. He outlines five prevalent viewpoints:
- Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
- Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
- Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
- Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment. (Many have regarded the thought of Niebuhr’s brother Reinhold as fitting into this category.)
- Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.