EPHESIANS 2-6 contains much that the modern world finds inspiring, such as the vision of unity through diversity, of inclusion and reconciliation, and the egalitarian empowerment of all members of the body of Christ in chapters 2-4. But modern readers struggle with what appear at first glance to be oppressive and hierarchical injunctions in chapters 5-6, about both slavery and family, in particular, the words in 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” In worst case scenarios, these words could be applied to keep women in positions of victimhood under abusive husbands. But the passage begins with 5: 21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And though Paul does not use the word “submit” in his directives to men and husbands, the kind of love to which he calls them is at least as strenuous and sacrificial as that to which he has called wives. This passage can only be understood hierarchically if it is interpreted from that standpoint. But the greater context of Paul’s writings and of the gospel has turned language and notions of hierarchy and domination on their heads. In future reflections on Paul’s epistles we shall see the same dynamic in regards to slavery.
Paul tells women to “respect” their husbands, and men to “love” their wives because these are precisely what men and women forget in relation to each other. Men may have socially respected persona, but their wives know their weaknesses and inconsistancies. This may tempt them to disrespect their husbands, especially if their husbands are neglecting to love them, which to Paul is always more practical and concrete, than sentimental. Men are indeed most tempted to neglect to love their wives in concrete and practical ways, not being tied as much to child-rearing and domesticity.
PHILIPPIANS 1-4 deals with common areas of church life, money and conflict (Euodia and Syntiche, 4: 2). While in prison (Caesarea?), Paul has received financial aid from the Philippians, for which he is thanking them in this letter. Its one of the few that did support him, or from which he accepted support (unlike Corinth). Some of the conflict may be due to those who are trying to impose Jewish regulations on Gentile Christians, a problem that he faced so often (3:2-14). Key to Paul’s address is his grasp of the identity of Christ, stated so eloquently in what read like the words of an ancient poem or hymn (maybe it was a hymn known to both Paul and the Philippian Christians, in 2: 5-11. The Christian ethic of mutual submission (see Eph. 5: 21 and note above) is rooted in the divine movement of submission both within the community of the Triune Godhead as well as in God’s relationship to Creation and humanity. The movement down into servanthood, solidarity and suffering and back into glory is also effectively the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of God in Christ. Not just inspirational, this is radical, the idea that God would take the place of and identify with the lowest part of Philippi’s social structure: the slaves. It challenges the high ideal of domination and conquest on which so much of human society and activity are based.
Another key is Paul’s statement about our citizenship in 3:20, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” That may strike us today as pious and inspirational, but to Paul’s audience it would have bordered on radical, maybe even treasonous. For the core of Philippi’s leading citizenry was made up of Roman colonists, with the privileges of Roman citizenship, who had settled there within a previous generation or two.
PSALM 123 recounts more of a pilgrim’s visit to Zion, perhaps having been a litany of prayer in the Temple. It casts a penetrating light on prayer: “as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God.” As in the first Song of Ascent (120) the attitudes of the unjust, the arrogant and the pagan neighbors pushes the pilgrim toward God. Such dispersion and lowly status may locate these psalms of ascent in post-exilic times.
PSALM 124 is a psalm of thanksgiving that may recount either the experience of Israel’s Exile, or of the personal dangers encountered on the way of pilgrimage.
PSALM 125 reflects the perspective of the pilgrim, who would indeed see other mountains encircling Mt. Zion. It may also reflect the times of suffering and foreign domination over Israel, such as those after the Exile and the restoration of the Temple. God will not let such unjust domination last long, the Psalm promises, “lest the righteous use their hands to do evil.” This hope would set the stage for Jesus and a Messianic deliverance of Israel from such domination and occupation.