1. During our talk last Wednesday I quoted the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians (vv. 22-25). Now after an introductory glance at this classic text, one should examine the way in which this passage—so important both for the mystery of the Church and of the sacramental character of marriage—is situated in the immediate context of the whole letter.
While realizing that there are a number of problems discussed among biblical scholars as regards the authorship, the date of composition, and those to whom the letter was addressed, one must note that the Letter to the Ephesians has a very significant structure. The author begins this letter by presenting the eternal plan of the salvation of man in Jesus Christ.
"God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has chosen us in him that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace...as a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him..." (Eph 1:3, 4-7, 10).
The author of the Letter to the Ephesians, after having presented in words full of gratitude the plan which, from eternity, is in God, and at a certain time is already fulfilled in the life of humanity, beseeches the Lord that men (and directly those to whom the letter is addressed) may fully know Christ as head: "He has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (1:22-23).
Sinful humanity is called to a new life in Christ, in which the pagans and the Hebrews should join together as in a temple (cf. 2:11-21). The Apostle preaches the mystery of Christ among the pagans, to whom he especially addresses himself in his letter, bending "the knee before the Father" and asking him to grant them "according to the riches of his glory to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man" (3:14, 16).
Vocation flowing from the divine plan
2. After this profound and moving revelation of Christ in the Church, in the second part of the letter the author passes to more detailed instructions. These are aimed at defining the Christian life as a vocation flowing from the divine plan, which we have previously spoken of, namely, from the mystery of Christ in the Church. Here also the author touches various questions which are always valid for the Christian life. He makes an exhortation for the preservation of unity, underlining at the same time that this unity is constructed on the multiplicity and diversity of Christ's gifts. To each one is given a different gift, but all, as Christians, must "put on the new nature created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:24). To this is linked the categorical summons to overcome vices and to acquire the virtues corresponding to the vocation which all have obtained through Christ (cf. 4:25-32). The author writes: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us...in sacrifice" (5:1-2).
Condemns pagan abuses
3. In the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians these directives become more detailed. The author severely condemns pagan abuses, writing: "For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light" (5:8). And then: "Therefore do not be foolish but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine [referring to the book of Proverbs 23:31]...but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart" (5:17-19). The author of the letter wishes to illustrate in these words the climate of spiritual life which should animate every Christian community. At this point he then goes on to consider the domestic community, namely, the family. He writes: "Be filled with the Spirit...always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:20-21). Thus we enter precisely into that passage of the letter which will be the theme of our special analysis. We might easily observe that the essential content of this classic text appears at the meeting of the two principal guidelines of the entire Letter to the Ephesians: the first, that of the mystery of Christ which, as the expression of the divine plan for the salvation of man, is realized in the Church; the second, that of the Christian vocation as the model of life of the baptized individual, and of the single communities, corresponding to the mystery of Christ, or to the divine plan for the salvation of man.
4. In the immediate context of the passage quoted, the author of the letter seeks to explain in what way the Christian vocation thus understood should be realized and manifested in the relations between all members of the family; therefore, not merely between the husband and wife (treated of precisely in the passage of 5:21-33 which we have chosen), but also between parents and children. The author writes: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (6:1-4). Following that, he speaks of the duty of servants in regard to their masters and, vice versa, of masters in regard to servants, that is, in regard to the slaves (cf. 6:5-9). This is to be referred also to the directives concerning the family in the broad sense. The family, indeed, comprised not only the parents and children (according to the succession of generations), but included also in the wide sense, the servants or slaves of both sexes.
5. Thus, then, the text of the Letter to the Ephesians which we proposed as the object of a deeper analysis is found in the immediate context of the teaching on the moral obligations of the family society (the so-called "Haustaflen" or domestic codes according to Luther's definition). We find similar instructions also in other letters (e.g., in Colossians 3:18-24, and in First Peter 2:13; 3:7). Moreover, this immediate context forms part of our passage, inasmuch as the classic text which we have chosen treats of the reciprocal duties of husbands and wives. However, one must note that per se the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians 5:21-33 deals exclusively with married couples and marriage, and what regards the family also in the broad sense is already found in the context. First, however, before undertaking a more detailed analysis of the text, it should be added that the whole letter ends with a stupendous encouragement to the spiritual battle (cf. 6:10-20), with brief recommendations (cf. 6:21-22) and with a final farewell (cf. 6:23-24). That call to the spiritual battle seems to be based logically on the line of argument of the entire letter. It is the explicit fulfillment of its principal guidelines.
Having thus before our eyes the overall structure of the entire Letter to the Ephesians, we shall seek in the first analysis to clarify the meaning of the words: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21), addressed to husbands and to wives.
Source: L'Osservatore Romano