By what standard?

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord.

Straight to the point. I ought to start this by saying that today’s Epistle, as outlined in the Lectionary gives us two choices. We can read all of Paul’s admonitions in Colossians 3:12-21 or we can skip over the hard parts, things that make us uncomfortable.

We all know what God wants, right – to skip over the hard parts? 

We can certainly agree that God never wants us to skip over the hard parts of His instruction. Jesus told us: “In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” (John 16:33).

What disturbs us about Paul’s words is that we read them from a perspective that the godless world pushes on us. That perspective is one in which there is no analysis, there is no search for deeper understanding. We somehow believe that English is the anointed language by which all must be understood, and heaven forbid that anyone use the word subordinate. Obviously, I, me, comes first.

I, me first, is not of Christ.

In Genesis, God creates a model of family and as we heard in today’s gospel, His very Son, Jesus, lived within that model. But let’s not just stop at the outward appearance of that model, because the inward nature of the family model is brought to the fore by St. Paul in his writing to the Colossians.

Paul is discussing an inter-relationship among the faithful. We are first and foremost a community that practices mutual love and respect. We offer each other heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We bear with each other and forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven us (catch that – live as the Lord lived). Above all we put on love as our mutual bond of perfection. Is that hard?

Jesus was born into a family that lived all that, and one in which each person lived a sacrificial existence, where the good of the other came before their own good. That is what being subordinate is. That is what love and obedience are. That is what total giving is.  In family we must be willing to decrease so that our wives, husbands, and children may increase. That is love in mutuality. Is that hard?

Never mistake this direction as having to do with being a slave. A slave does not have a choice in the giving of self. We do. 

The bottom line – How are we to live together? What do we consider hard? For us the standard within family and community is God’s standard. A life of total self-giving should not be hard for Christians.

Say what?

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.