Fr. Ron Bagley, CJM
Are wives really supposed to be subject to their husbands? Or as another translation says: be submissive to your husband? This admonition which we hear in today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21-32) creates difficulties for many modern women. They do not see themselves in some way inferior to their husbands. They see that marriage is a partnership of equals. St. Paul, reflecting the culture of his time, seems to place women in a submissive role.
How can we understand this controversial passage in light of modern biblical interpretation and the equal status that should be afforded women in our contemporary cultural context? Isolating verse 22 about wives being submissive has done great harm to women and the constant misinterpretation leads many to wonder what the inspired word of God is really saying.
First of all, it is necessary to see this admonition in its context. It immediately follows from the instruction by Paul that all of us should “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In fact, in the original Greek, the word for subordinate is not even repeated in verse 22 when Paul speaks about wives. It is understood that wives have the same kind of “subordination” to the husbands that all Christians should have toward Christ.
Secondly, we need to understand what it means to “be subordinate.” In the original biblical Greek, this verb carries the nuance of one’s “voluntary submission” to another person. It does not speak of dominance of one person over another. Husbands are not given dominion or power over their wives. To be subordinate to one another means to put the needs of the other before your own. To be more concerned about the other than about oneself.
Thirdly, when Paul addresses the duties of husbands in verse 25, he tells them “to love their wives as their own bodies.” A young woman once asked me, “Why does St. Paul tell wives to be submissive to their husbands but only tells husbands to love their wives?” The answer to this question lies in the meaning of the Greek word for “to love.” Many people know that there are three words in biblical Greek for love: eros (attraction), philos (brotherly or family love) and agape (a love that is marked by sacrificing and giving of oneself for another). This third word describes the love of God. When we say “God is love,” it is agape which is used. This is also the word that St. Paul uses (agapan = to love) when he admonishes husbands to love their wives. And so it is clear that St. Paul also wants husbands to freely and voluntarily “submit themselves” to their wives. Husbands and wives should be ready to subject their own wants and desires to the happiness of their spouse. In different ways, Paul is really telling spouses to think of the needs of the other before oneself. It is a mutual self-giving.
In today’s world, everybody focuses on meeting their own needs. Everyone wants to be happy and enjoy life. There is a kind of self-centeredness that judges the worth or value of something on how it impacts me. We hear people say things like: “My boss told me that my work was unsatisfactory. What does she know?” Or “My parents are always telling me what to do. They want me to do things their way.” Still again “I know that what my friend told me is true, but I don’t like it, so I will do what I want instead.” One more: “I didn’t like that homily because it made me feel uncomfortable.”
St. Paul is saying just the opposite. By telling us to be subordinate to one another, St. Paul is telling us to put the needs of others before my own. We are called to be other-centered rather than self-centered. Imagine what kind of world it would be if we were all other-centered: thinking of the needs of others before our own?
St. Paul is telling wives and husbands, in fact all Christians, that to love like Christ means to deny oneself and give ourselves completely to the Lord. It means to love like Jesus who laid down his life for us. The lives of married Christians reflect the love of Christ when they willingly sacrifice themselves for another. Jesus said: “there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
In today’s second reading, St Paul is talking about a mutual subordination in which husbands and wives are other-directed. Husbands and wives should find their happiness in making their spouse happy or in serving their spouse. But it’s mutual. Not one over the other. Marriage is a partnership.
About 30 years ago, I was the diocesan director of ministry to young adults. The focus of this ministry was on helping young people around 18-35 years old find their place in the Church. Many young adults met their spouses through our programs. I was asked to perform many weddings.
Some time ago, a group of those formerly young adults got together while I was home for vacation. I told them that at every one of their weddings my homily included one line that I used all the time. It goes like this:
- Maria, from this day forward Patrick is the most important person in your life. Put him first and make his happiness, his success and his Christian faith your primary concern.
- Patrick, from this day forward Maria is the most important person in your life. Put her first and make her happiness, her success and her Christian faith your primary concern.
Most of them remembered me saying that and most of them said they have tried to live their marriage in that way.
Today’s reading from St Paul to the Ephesians concludes with a reference to the creation of women in the book of Genesis:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
This beautiful unity can only be achieved if husbands and wives strive every day to live not each for himself or herself, but only if they are totally selfless and self-sacrificing, only if they submit themselves totally to their spouse.
This is a great mystery,
but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
In the Catholic Church we include marriage among the seven sacraments. Sacrament has been defined as a visible sign of invisible grace. The selfless love for husbands and wives is a tangible, visible sign of the love that Christ has for his Church, and that the members of the Church have for Christ.
In my theology class at Loyola School of Theology, I was asking students to make a list of the various images of God we find in the Bible. One student mentioned the image of Jesus as the Bridegroom. So, I asked: who is the bride? All the students answered in unison: The Church is the Bride of Christ. He is the bridegroom who sacrificed everything for his bride. He gave his very life for us
Let us pray today for all married couples, that they be true sacraments, living signs to the whole world of the fidelity, the self-sacrifice and the dying to self of Jesus Christ.