Monday, October 29, 2012




Tomorrow's (i.e., 10/30/12's) first reading for Mass in the Catholic Church is the now infamous Ephesians 5:21-33, which contains the following passage:


Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the Church,
he himself the savior of the Body.
As the Church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.


The admonition to wives to be submissive to their husbands is offensive to the modern ear, so offensive, in fact, that the Church provides an alternate reading, Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32, which excludes that reference.


The most obvious explanation for Paul's admonition is, of course, historical context.   But there is more to that explanation than meets the eye.


Was St. Paul, the author of Ephesians, the raging male chauvinist, perhaps even misogynist, that he is sometimes accused of being?   Yes, by standards of today but by not by standards of his day.  


It was a matter of course in Paul's day that women were not considered the equals of men, so much so that Paul's advice to women to be submissive barely raised notice, let alone objection.  (It is indeed one of the gifts of God that we have made so much, but not yet enough, progress in our regard for women in advanced societies; less developed of today's societies, sadly, still regard women with little more than scorn and, tragically, sometimes do so in the name of God.   But I digress.)   The portion of this passage that did raise eyebrows, if not hackles, among Paul's listeners, followed the above quoted lines:


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,
that he might present to himself the Church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.


Paul goes so far as to say


So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the Church,
because we are members of his Body.


Love your wives?  And love your wives as you love your own flesh?  In that era, and in that area where the Roman military and Greco-Roman culture dominated, women were regarded as little more than chattel and wives were more or less traded as parts of business deals, large or small.   Doubtless there were many instances in which men did love their wives, but generally when that condition prevailed that love developed over time; love was not a consideration in the deal that was marriage in Greco-Roman culture.   Lust perhaps, and probably rarely, but love?   Rarely, if ever.


So what was truly revolutionary to the ear of Paul's time was his admonition to husbands to love their wives.   Telling wives to submit to their husbands was the same old same old.   But telling husbands to love their wives was so out of the ordinary, and threatening to the normal course of things, that it could have, and doubtless did, get Paul in trouble.


In Paul's further defense, he concludes this passage, after relating a larger point about the relationship of Christ to the Church being very much akin to the proper, loving relationship between a man and a woman, with a reiteration of his advice for men to love their wives:


In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself


and a change in the verb describing the proper relationship of a woman to her husband

and the wife should respect her husband.  (Emphasis mine)


Though we wish Paul would have added something like


and the husband should respect his wife,     


who, even today, would argue with that?


So, yes, Paul sounds like a male chauvinist, at best, to today's listeners.   I cringe when I hear the above passage, and I am sure most of you do, too.   But give St. Paul a break; he was operating in the 1st century Roman world and was effectively sticking it in their eye by telling men that they should actually love, rather than own and do with what they would, their wives.   By those standards, Paul was a champion of women's rights, as was his Master, but the latter is grist for another mill


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