The passage that we read from the Letter to the Ephesians today is called the “paranesis” or code of conduct. Each of St. Paul’s Letters ends with a practical application of how to live out the principles that he has set forth in his letter. The Letter to the Ephesians basically explains the Church. So this code of conduct explains how to live out our lives as members of the Church community.
To properly understand the point of these exhortations, modern Western readers need to recall that the letter recipients are collectivistic personalities. For such people, the community is paramount; individual identity is secondary. Their purpose derives from their membership in the community. For such personalities, the individual is subservient and subordinate to – yes, even expendable for – the group. With this understanding, three things take on greater clarity in today’s reading:
First of all, all the uses of the pronoun “you” and “your” in this code of conduct are plural in form. He is speaking to us as a group. Paul is indicating his belief that the corporate body, the Church, is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The difficulty of perceiving these plurals in our English translation leaves this passage susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. In the world of our ancestors in the faith, the spirit is never private property, a personal possession. The spirit belongs to the group, informs the group, and makes the group its temple. Thus Paul exhorts: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” and then proceeds to list behaviors that are divisive in a community; namely, bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and name calling. All of these behaviors are threats to the honor and reputation of others. They are shameful behaviors which very clearly destroy the harmonious unity of a group.
The proper behaviors proposed by the author are summed up in the exhortation “walk in love.” In collectivistic societies love has little to do with feelings of affection, sentiments of fondness, and warm, glowing affinity. Love in this context is “the value of group attachment and group bonding.” Love is the willingness to sacrifice whatever is required in order to maintain group integrity. Forgiveness, or perhaps better the forgoing of retaliation or revenge will guarantee “love,” that is, it will maintain the unity of the group.
Finally, Jesus’ behavior in today’s Gospel reading is also clarified in this collectivist context. Anyone who raises himself above his birth status as Jesus seems to be doing is a threat to the community. Of course, Jesus is not raising himself above his birth status; but if one does not believe in Jesus, he would seem to be doing so. So they, like their ancestors in the desert, begin to murmur against Jesus.
Western people think of themselves as individuals first and as members of the community second. Consequently, we have no problem with Jesus asserting that he has come down from heaven. We have no apparent difficulty believing that Jesus is who he says he is. However, if we believe in Jesus, as I mentioned last week, we have to act as if we believe. St. Paul tells us that bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling have no place in our lives. It does not take a genius to realize that all of these attributes are very prevalent in our society. Rather than practicing compassion and forgiveness, we spend our time arguing and denigrating anyone whose thinking is different than mine.
The evangelist reminds us today that Jesus is the Bread of Life. The Jewish audience who heard Jesus’ exclamation, did not understand how Jesus could make this claim. We may think that we understand what Jesus is saying, but we have lost the moral imperative that comes with faith in Jesus as the Bread of Life. For in order for it to be the Bread of Life, it must be shared. Just as the manna of the Hebrew Scriptures would grow moldy and inedible if it was hoarded by someone who failed to share it, so too our participation in the Eucharist will not bring us any blessings or graces if we fail to share our abundance with those who have little or nothing. St. Paul’s admonition to walk in love is not just so many words. It is the moral imperative that becomes ours if we accept Jesus as our Bread of Life.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator