Monday, August 27, 2012

Cutting the Wives Out of Ephesians 5

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

Yesterday, the twenty-firstSunday in Ordinary Time, the second reading at Mass was the famous (or infamous) excerpt from St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians about husbands and wives. This was the second reading that we selected for our wedding, so obviously, is one we like. So I was annoyed yesterday when the shorter version of it was used.

I generally dislike using the shorter versions, since the longer ones often give more content as well as context. I just don't like "cutting it short." I dislike using the shorter version of this reading in particular, because it seems to cater to mainstream culture's idea of "political correctness" in omitting the verses about wives, but skipping to the way that husbands ought to love their wives. As good and important as it is to read the latter verses in the passage, "Husbands, love your wives...," I think it is important to supply the full context. The whole passage goes together to describe a situation not of male dominance, as many like to think, but one of mutual cooperation and self-giving, things at the heart of a marital relationship. Why do we want to cut half of the equation out?

In a discussion about the reading, a good friend of mine clarified and helped me understand why it can sometimes be reasonable to use the shorter reading of this passage. When the second reading is not going to be addressed in the Homily, it was explained to me, it is sometimes decided to shorten this particular reading from Ephesians because of the widespread misunderstanding of the verses.

It makes some sense that one might desire to draw attention to these particular words of Paul only if they were intended to be explicated more fully. There are so many misunderstandings about this reading that presenting it without giving it full attention satisfies neither the importance of Paul's words on the topic, nor the curiosity of the listeners. It is not enough just to want these words spoken and proclaimed. They must be presented and offered together with their explanation, and with an understanding of what the reception of the verses may be, prior to the understanding of the explanation.

I still fear, though, that the omission itself can too easily be misconstrued, and in such a way as to almost perpetuate the very animosity that about the verses that is sought to be quelled. While we do not want people to hear the passage and come away saying "I can't believe what the Church is saying in that reading," at least after hearing it someone may seek to find out why they are really there try to find out what they mean. In omitting the verses I think it should be feared that people may observe, "Look at the previous verses that they left out— that confirms that Paul was wrong about that."

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”...  As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
John 6:60; 66

This Sunday, the Gospel reading was a continuation of last Sunday's' Gospel in which Jesus tells his Disciples about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist. This Sunday continues when some of them respond, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" and some of them left and stopped following the Lord. To the disciples who first heard Jesus's Eucharistic words, the idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was nearly impossible to comprehend. It was probably as shocking as some people today may find Paul's words, as writers atthe NCR point out (1). To some people today, the concept of the Eucharist still is difficult to comprehend. But when something is important, we try to understand it. We keep trying to have it explained to us, and keep trying to understand just a little bit more each time.

The same should go for many other things we can find in scripture, including Paul's words to the Ephesians. When we learn something that seems not to make sense to us, do we dismiss it, or do we try to understand it? When hearing something makes us say "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" we ought not be the ones who simply walk away in denial and unbelief. If we do that, we will never understand.

(1) Tom and April Hoopes, "Advice for Wives and Husbands," National Catholic Register.


  1. Nicely put. I agree- it seems like readings that may be easily misconstrued when not explained may be shortened to avoid chaos, but really, I think that when readings come up on a Sunday ..well.. they ought to be explained. But perhaps it is the liturgists-that-be ('s) mercy on the general priesthood.
    The main thrust of this reading is, indeed, mutuality - which is the shocking part of Paul's assertion - and it would probably do every marriage a great deal of good to try to make this same mutia gift a priority in our relationships with one another.

    1. Right, the mutual part is what would have surprised Paul's audience. I have heard it said that the part about the wives was there as a statement of what already is, not as a command, and then the real "juice" is behind the mutuality and the demands on the husbands to be Christlike.

      I think that including it all, rather than omitting, is a way of conveying, "Look, there's nothing wrong with these words."

  2. I pondered this a bit when I thought of my natural reaction to my wife's requests, which is to bristle and feel a sense of resentment. What if I were obedient to my wife and did a chore of two that she requested immediately, without any delay or objection? Why would that be so bad? That's taking the mutuality a half step further.