I confess to a purposefully provocative title. I believe that the first reading for today’s Mass, Eph 5:21-33, is the most misunderstood passage in Sacred Scripture. It is the passage that wives love to hate, and that husbands love (because they don’t hear much past the first two sentences). I have even teased priest-friends about how I can perceive fear in their eyes when preaching on it. This post will consist of four parts. Today I will cover the first sentence…yes only the first sentence, because it is important to be clear about the term: be subject to.
As teachers of the faith, when things are difficult we either seek to put on a positive spin, or we even gloss over the difficulty and hope no one will notice. This morning when discerning whether to write about this, I asked the Lord if I should take the time to attend Mass. I usually go on Tuesdays anyway, but I wanted to make sure this was part of God’s plan for me today.
“Listen to the priest with an open heart,” the Lord answered.
It was a good thing that this answer was so specific, because wouldn’t you know, from 7:00 a.m. to 8:15 a.m., as I was driving my kids to school, I was tempted multiple times NOT to go. But I remembered, “Listen to the priest with an open heart.” One must obey. In that aforementioned time period, the Lord helped me make some connections in my mind between the Sunday Gospel and today’s readings. These connections were confirmed by the homily I heard!
I was very grateful Jesus for speaking His Word to me in my heart, and through the priest at Mass. This is the way God speaks to all of us. We can perceive His truth in our hearts through discernment, and in union with others. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:20). I felt like God was giving me permission to pursue this endeavor of writing on the most misunderstood passage in Scripture! In my opinion, it is also one of the most important.
On Sunday Jesus spoke of the Divine Law of love. First, love God. Second, love your neighbor as yourself. In chapter five of Ephesians St. Paul gives us some details on just how to do this. What kinds of things do we actually do to live the divine law of love?
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). To “be subject to” (hypotassō, Gk) means all of the following things, biblically: to yield to one’s admonition or advice; to subject one’s self, obey, and; to arrange under, to subordinate. Notice that each definition implies a person’s own willingness for the action; it is not forced. This word is the same one used in Luke, after Jesus was found by His parents in the temple. “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to [hypotassō, Gk] them…” (Lk 2:51a). Jesus subjected himself to the authority of Mary and Joseph, with a willing heart. The next phrase “to one another” means that the subjection is a reciprocal decision. Right from the first line we see that any thoughts of power over the other, or even “balance of power,” are mutually exclusive to the reciprocal subordinating of self to another. Finally, “out of reverence for Christ” implies that the mutual subjection is done for the sake of something higher: reverence for God. Love of God is first in the Divine Law of love. It is therefore a necessary first principle of human love, and most especially, marital love, which I will write about in Part II.
In the practical, real-life sense this one sentence is exactly what Pope Francis preached about during the Sunday Angelus: “And love for neighbour, which is also called fraternal charity, consists in closeness, listening, sharing, caring for others. And so often we neglect to listen to others because it is boring or because it takes up our time, or [we neglect] to accompany them, to support them in their suffering, in their trials…” I believe that to listen to someone is the beginning of loving others; it is the first gift of self — the first subordination. When the Pope speaks of sharing he is talking about mutual reverence — a decision by each participant in the relationship to “subject one’s self” to the other. This choice, made in the will, is the beginning of love.
The Next Installment — Mutual Subjection: Sanctification in Marriage (Part II).