Some of the ideas in this lesson are taken from a retreat on Ephesians preached during August 2000 in All Hallows College, Dublin, by Fr Francis Martin S.S.D.
In the parallel passage in Colossians most space was given to slaves and here in Eph most space is given to the husband’s love of the wife, in two sections 5:25-27 and 5:28-32. Is the reason for this that husbands are slower to learn than wives? The rules for households that the author gives in Col and Eph are known as the traditional household rules, which were in vogue all over the Graeco-Roman world of that time going right back to Aristotle. As in this letter, they also had rules for three pairs in the house, husband-wife, parent-child, master-slave. In this household what was at that time considered the weaker is addressed firstly, wife, child, slave.
The challenge of man and woman is that they are totally equal and very different. For most of history we said man is superior because we can’t work with equality and difference. Remember Gen 2, how the neuter earth creature became man and woman and each needed the other. That beautiful relationship was upset by the sin in Gen 3 but the author is here in Eph 4-5 suggesting that relationship is restored in Christ.
The first word in Greek in v21 is the participle upotassomenoi ‘being subject.’ It is the middle voice of the verb in Greek which means you do the action to yourself. Therefore it means a willing voluntary yielding to the good order of the community.
With two exceptions upotassomenoi is never used in a description of marriage in the secular literature of the time. In other words, according to Fr. Francis Martin, Christians were looking around for a whole new word for a way of relating, particularly relating in marriage. As they took the Greek words agape, ekklesia, and filled them with their own concept, they did the same with upotassomenoi. They are describing a new reality on the globe and must find a new way of describing it. The text is not saying ‘wives be subject to your husbands’ because there is no verb ‘be subject’ in the Greek in v22; that is inserted in English translations only. V22 is a continuation of the sentence beginning in v18 and follows from upotassomenoi in v21. It is correct to interpret 5:21 as a continuation of the sentence beginning in 5:18 because the first word in Greek in 5:21, upotassomenoi, is a participle and not a main verb. In other words in Greek, the sentence does not begin in v21 as in our English translations, instead in Greek the sentence begins in v18. You might ask, “Is there a full stop at the end of v20 in the Greek?” There was no punctuation in the early Greek manuscripts. Not only that, but there were no spaces between words so that an entire book appeared as if one long word! The spaces and punctuation in the Greek New Testaments that we read now were inserted in later times. Therefore a correct translation of 5:21-22 is as follows, “…mutually submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to their husbands as to the Lord.” Therefore v21 advises mutual submission of husband and wife out of respect for each other. Wives are subordinating themselves in an act of love. ‘Obedience’ is not the term for Christians. There is love in every home or it is not a Christian home. ‘Wives to your husbands as to the Lord,’ v22. The ‘as’ is an analogy. In an analogy there is participation in being. The Lord is the object of this woman’s love. As she yields in love to the love of her husband she touches Christ. This is the mysticism of marriage. It is a precious gift that this text is here for us as we try to begin to recover a sense of the holiness of Christian life, including its physical dimension, for everyone.
What the author says to husbands in v23 is revolutionary. How is Christ head of the Church? He is the Savior of the body as part of himself. That body is joined to him in love. The implication of v23 is that the husband should if necessary make the ultimate sacrifice and give his life in sacrifice for his wife. You can see how mixed up we in our interpretation of this verse are where the only value now is power and we have been used to hearing it understood in that way. But authority is not coercive power, remember Jesus said it must not be like the Gentiles among you, the greatest will serve everybody else. The example is Jesus because he has poured out his blood for us.
V25 Agape is the only word used in the NT to describe husbands loving their wives. Agape is a God gift, a God reality. Husbands being asked to love their wives in this way is counter cultural. There were husbands and wives who were friends but the basic function of marriage at that time was financial and political, financial to keep the money in the family and political to provide for the good of the city. The concept of a couple was not part of the Greco-Roman concept of marriage. But it began to emerge about this time. This is a text which is consciously offsetting the corrupted relationship between man and wife since Gen 3 and is doing it in Christ lifting up human reality and restoring it to its original beauty.
V26 referring to Christ washing the Church in cleansing water with a form of words refers to baptism. It took the blood of Christ to fulfill what is stated in v27. In vv 28-32 the argument is that as the husband looks after his body he should look after his wife in the same way. In v28 the wife can be considered the body of her husband, because as Gen states, they are one flesh. In the Life of Adam Eve says ‘kill me, its my fault’, but he says ‘will I cut my own flesh?’ A wife is a physical, emotional, spiritual unity with her husband. Christ looks after the Church (v29), husbands should look after their wives in the same way. In vv29-30 just as a man feeds his body Christ feeds the Church with the Eucharist. V31, man and woman becoming one flesh is a quotation from Gen 2:24 which is the background to vv28-30. In v32 this is described as a ‘mystery.’ Remember what mystery means, it is God’s plan revealed. Marriage itself is a prophecy of Christ and the Church. The previous mystery revealed in Eph was the unity of Jew and Gentile. Now another mystery is revealed. The Greek word musterion (mystery) was often translated as sacramentum (sacrament) in the Vulgate Latin translation. We could describe a sacrament as a sacred sign that effects and brings about what it signifies. Therefore translating musterion in v32 as sacrament is very profound because it is a sign that brings about the reality of the Church. The relationship between husband and wife, and all of their relationship is sacramental, including the way they relate sexually, and implies the abiding of Christ in this relationship.
The relationship between Christ and the Church is the model for all human marriage. Previously in this letter the writer has repeatedly called the entire Christian community to build itself up in love (1:4; 3:17; 4:2,15-16; 5:2). Here at the end of chapter 5 he specifically exhorts husbands to love their wives. In 5:2 we are all to take Jesus as our model in loving and here in 5:25-27 the husband is to take the love of Christ for the Church as his model in loving his wife. Christ loved the Church by sacrificing himself for her (5:25), by his passion, death and resurrection, and made her holy by washing her in water with a form of words, the latter obviously referring to baptism and the formula/rite for baptism. Jesus did that for the Church and husbands are to love their wives in the same way. The implication is that husbands should die for their wives if necessary. In 2 Cor 11:2 Paul wrote, “I gave you all in marriage to a single husband, a virgin pure for presentation to Christ.” This is elaborated here in Eph 5:25-27. The Church is the bride of Christ. What a beautiful description.
The prefaces for Wedding Masses make use of the theology here in Eph 5. The Second Preface for Wedding Masses states,
“In the union of husband and wife
you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace,
so that the Sacrament we celebrate
might draw us back more deeply
into the wondrous design of your love.”
The Third Preface for Wedding Masses states,
“And so, the Sacrament of
as the abiding sign of your own love,
consecrates the love of man and woman,
through Christ our Lord. ”
It is almost as if God made male and female as a prophecy of the Church. I’ll make them male and female and then they’ll understand the union between Jesus and the Church.
With all of the sexual profligacy in the ancient Gentile world everyone was expected to marry to produce heirs to pass on the glory of the city. But all of this took on a whole new dimension in Jesus. Jesus founded a messianic family and lifted marriage to a new level. All Christian marriages are brought into this family. Grace sublates nature, it includes it and puts it in another context. The author gives marriage a new Christian motivation here. The motivating force of these rules is radically different to the contemporary rules. The household members are to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (5:21). That sets the tone for everything that follows. Each person in the house will fulfill his/her duties out of love for Christ. This is altogether new, as is the command to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (5:25), with the implication that they should, if necessary, make the ultimate sacrifice like Jesus on the cross and give their lives for their wives.
One of the boldest proponents of an optimistic view of marriage is Pope John Paul II. As a priest he wrote a book, Love and Responsibility. It was a shocking book in its day. Most of his contacts were with lay people. He interacted with young couples and they taught him so much. He learned the depth and beauty of relationship in marriage and began to understand the sexual dimension of this relationship must be taken up into Christ. Since marriage is a vocation it is a call to sanctity, which means that mortgages, measles, sexuality etc are part of sanctity. Pope John Paul II, in that book, said the relating of husband and wife sexually is an act of worship.
We could ask the following questions of this passage. Why is it only the husband who is to take Christ as his model for a loving marriage? Can the wife not also take Christ as model? Why is the wife not also called upon to love her husband as Christ loved the Church? Remember my reading of 5:21 calling for mutual submission, it includes men as well as women. In this way one can say that both men and women are to submit to one another, and both men and women are to love another and sacrifice themselves for one another. We have the admit the huge step made in this letter giving Christian motivation to secular rules and the beautiful description of human marriage mirroring the love of Christ for the Church. One theologian has said, “a greater, wiser and more positive description of marriage has not yet been found in Christian literature” (Barth, quoted in Lincoln Ephesians 391). Most of the advice is to the husbands, from vv25-33, perhaps the wives catch on faster than husbands!
The second pair of the three pairs, husbands-wives, parents-children, masters-slaves is addressed in 6:1-4. As usual we begin with those who are called on in society at that time to be submissive, children. In this section on children (vv1-4) and the following section on slaves (vv5-9) we have a series of imperatives. The previous section was direct exhortation without imperatives and now we move to imperatives about the children and slaves. Before citing the fourth commandment in v2 Paul gives natural law as a reason for obeying parents, “that is what uprightness demands”.
The promise attached to the commandment to honor one’s parents is living long in the land (Eph 6:3, see Ex 20:12). In our transposed Christian understanding the land means the Body of Christ. For the Jews the land is something special, not like any other land in the world. In the Mishnah and Talmud there are treatises about how to plant and harvest in the land. All of this applies to the land, if you live elsewhere i.e. outside of Israel, you can farm anyway you like.
In v4 the author asks parents not to drive their children to resentment. The heart of being a father is to be reliable and to love. Many of the great athletes have their father with them all the time, e.g. Tiger Woods, Steffi Graf. I have heard of a father who picked up a boy who was making noise and instead of reprimanding said ‘I will love the sin out of you.’ To be a father is letting go of anger, not truth but anger, because anger will injure people. When a man is not a father to his daughters they lack that esteem from a man that helps them stay chaste and may look for some kind of attention from men. The Church has a lot of formation for priests but parents are called to holiness just as much and the Church until now does not have much to offer them in the way of formation.
Behind v4 is a whole understanding of human life and the role of children and responsibility of parents. For the Jews it would have been considered the primary glory of a family to raise children who loved God and lived morally upright lives. There are many passages about this in the Wisdom Literature. Something has happened to this vision in our culture because now it seems that almost everything else is more important. This vision of the understanding of what humanity really is and the work that it takes and the glory that it is to bring up children is the matrix for almost all Christian teaching on marriage. It is important to realize that this vision is sublated by the reality of Christ, brought up into a whole new context where it is brought to perfection by the reality of Christ.
The word ‘obey’ is used for the first time in v1 and will be used again in v5. We have a warped view of authority which makes the notion of obeying authority difficult for us. Authority, if it functions correctly, is for our good. If the primary role of authority is to give life, then who is a father? A father is the one who nurtures, protects, and sustains life. Where you see that happen you see a family. This sort of family life begins from the moment of conception. If a child is conceived in a genuine mutual self-giving act of love, and carried in the womb with an atmosphere of love and trust in the home, that child starts life with a clear advantage. When there is bitterness and arguing the child is impacted by that. The future of humanity depends on the right living out of family. The cutting edge of new evangelization is the family. The one who comes from a happy family has an advantage but those who do not can pray to be touched by the healing grace of Christ. When Palestinians knew they had conceived they took an hour a day to praise God, to teach their child how to relate to God. They didn’t need all the important modern studies to know that the atmosphere in the home affected the child in the womb. If there is peace in the home that child in the womb is already open to the Holy Spirit in a profound way. These children start with a trust, optimism and dignity whereas the rest are struggling. That is the vision that the author of this letter has.
The third pair, masters-slaves, is addressed in vv5-9, as usual beginning with the one society called to be submissive, slaves. As in Col 3:22 we are told that the masters are masters only according to human reckoning (v5), and the masters are reminded that they have a Master, the Lord, in heaven. Both slaves and masters have one ultimate allegiance, allegiance to the Lord. The effect of this is to relativize the distinction between them. Note that the slaves are regarded as full members of the Church. Sometimes Paul describes himself as a slave of the Lord. Slavery in the first century was not as bad as we might sometimes imagine and the dividing line between being a slave and a freedman was sometimes not very much. In the first century, one third of Italy and Greece were slaves. How much of these verses could be applied to employer-employee relationships today?
In a secular Greco-Roman treatise it would be unthinkable to read advice on how slaves were to behave. They were to behave as they were told. But now in the Christian community they are all brothers and sisters in the household. In this text they are not addressed as non-persons with no rights as they were legally in the whole Empire but as Christians with an eternal dignity equal to anyone else in that household and with responsibilities as great. The early Christian preaching subverted slavery. When they go to worship they were all on the same standing as everyone else. Gal 3:28 is the background to this text, there is neither slave nor free, you are all one. Has the economy made people slaves again? How many people are free? Do we have another type of slavery now?