A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the smaller, rural parishes for Sunday Mass. It was the lovely late summer Sunday at which the Scripture readings happened to include the prickly reading from Ephesians in which wives are encouraged to be submissive to their husbands and husbands told to love their wives. The reader decided to read the entire passage (Eph 5:21-32), not merely the customary shortened form which omits the controversial verses.
I watched annoyed frowns appear on a variety of faces in the congregation. My normal practice, of course, is to recommend the shorter form simply out of recognition that the text is difficult to understand and jars so deeply with our contemporary American culture. But there I was, caught in the midst of a liturgical swamp; so I decided to make the best of the situation, not ignore it!
After Communion I invited the folks to remain seated for a few moments while I placed the troublesome verses into context. It was a spur of the moment decision on my part which turned out to be illuminating for any number of folks in the congregation. The Gospel of the day had
included the reference to the “hard saying” of eating the Lord’s body and drinking his blood; so I suggested the obvious, namely that the reading from Ephesians had another hard saying too!
I pointed out that the passage began, in case someone may have missed it, with the strong admonition to both spouses: “be subordinate to one another out of reverence to Christ” (v.21). Only after establishing the fundamental principle, I noted, were wives encouraged to be subordinate to husbands as to the Lord (v.22) … and husbands encouraged to love wives as Christ loved the church (v.24). The principle stood for everyone!
The historical background to that passage is fascinating. Women were often affluent heads of household churches and held positions of authority in the early church … somewhat similar to the powerful abbesses of later medieval feudal society. St. Paul’s partners, Priscilla and Lydia, come to mind immediately. Those in the Greek world had more economic and political freedom than those in the Roman world and Paul wanted to assure the leaders of that latter society that the Christian movement would not be a subversive or insurmountable threat to the social order. The epistle recommended mutual submission and encouraged women to be models and mentors like Christ himself!
In the ancient world, I went on to explain, marriages were often arranged by parental and family authority, with an eye toward solidifying relationships which would be economically, socially and politically advantageous. The real “hard saying” of the text, therefore, was that latter command, namely to love wives, not to take them for granted, and indeed to do so as Christ loved the church! With our contemporary Western cultural sensitivities and sense of gender equality, we might tend to reject the first command of wifely subordination, but I think the ancient world would have had the bigger problem with the second!
Mutual submission was a hallmark of the early church. In writing to the Philippians, Paul asked two women (Evodia and Syntyche), apparently heads of rival house churches, to come to mutual understanding (4:2) and put aside all rivalry or sense of smug superiority … and in fact he used the same principle, namely regarding others as more important than oneself, and looking out for the interests of others more than oneself (2:3f), as an introduction to the great hymn about Christ who humbled and emptied himself even unto death on a cross!
The true notion of “hierarchy” is a “sacred order,” not in any sense of domination of one person over another, but rather a holy interrelationship, namely placing any gifts we may have at the total service of others. This is what should mark us off from the rest of the world. The notion of “upper” and “lower” is the unfortunate result of a phonetic overlap with American English which hears “higher” where “hier / sacred” is said!
The powerful example of the foot washing on Holy Thursday says it all. There are many hard sayings in the Gospel, and we shouldn’t ever run away from any of them, but try to understand them from their historical context, inner logic and perennial power. At least that’s what I thought as I took off the vestments and headed down to the parish picnic after Mass. Many folks paused to say, “Thanks.” I decided that wandering through the swamp isn’t all bad.