Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord… As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word… So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
Modern sensibilities are often troubled when we get to these passages in Paul’s letters, today from his letter to the Church at Ephesus. Paul seems to pick at sensibilities all the time, and I imagine it felt that way, even in his allegedly unenlightened time. The Church, in picking readings for today, offers an alternative, a shorter Epistle without all that nasty ‘wives should be subordinate’ stuff. I guess sensibilities were upset.
One of the problems we face in understanding Paul, his text, and the communities he preached to, is that we layer our sensibilities, based on our experience, over what Paul was trying to say. For instance, a little study of the economic realities and relationships of Paul’s day would help us understand that when Paul spoke of slaves he was not referring to a slavery of horrors as was lived in America. There were different forms of slavery in that time, and in certain instances it was no more than an economic relationship between a worker and boss. More important than the form of slavery was how Christians were to treat each other.
Paul’s message was always countercultural. Slaves and masters were to treat each other differently because they had to live a new life in Christ. Both the slave/worker and master/employer were to act in accordance with their new life in Christ.
Today, Paul speaks of subordination and love. These are not to be mutually exclusive things, but in fact a unified whole. Wives and husbands, as with masters and slaves, are to live differently because of Jesus. The complete subordination, an emptying of oneself for the other, is key to life in Jesus. Give up to each other, don’t give in to evil.
This self-subordination, self-sacrificial love, is to mark the lives of Christ followers. Today’s Gospel clearly illustrates that. Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Exactly! Say what? Self-sacrifice, subordination, handing over one’s life to the community of faith offends modern sensibility. Let’s show today how wrong it is.