Tuesday, September 11, 2012

As yourself

Sunday's epistle reading, James 2:1-10, strikes an important note as we engage in various discussions around the Anglisphere. Picking up Leviticus 19:18, as Jesus himself did, and as Paul did (Galatians 6:16; Romans 13:8-9), James encourages us to do well by fulfilling the 'royal law', according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."

James contextualises this call, as Moses himself did in Leviticus 19, in social justice. Love your neighbour as yourself is not about the pyschology of love, reach out and give your neighbour a big hug, feeling warm feelings of goodwill towards your neighbour as you do to yourself (and if you do not feel good about yourself, get thee to a therapist). No, James and Moses point us in the direction of neighbourly love as acting justly and fairly towards your neighbour, just as we ourselves wish to be recipients of justice.

In all instances in the New Testament of the statement of this command, a proposal is being made that followers of Jesus will not have a large rulebook accompanying them through the journey. Rather, there will be a few rules, and the most important of all in respect of social relationships is 'love your neighbour as yourself.' How does a disciple respond to a new situation in life? By treating the other with the justice and fairness we would expect to receive ourselves. I wonder if this is why this summarising rule is called 'the royal law' by James: it is the rule King Jesus has given his followers for life in the kingdom of God.

But we could also go further and ask whether 'Love your neighbour as yourself' provides an interpretative help when engaging with other matters according to scripture. Thus, in the instance of the controversy over the Diocese of Sydney's wording of a proposed alternate marriage service (recently and presently being discussed in comments here), we might turn to Ephesians 5:21ff with James 2:8 (and Leviticus 19:18) in mind.

I am prompted to do this by a specific note in my (recently acquired and much appreciated) New Oxford Annotated Bible which offers "See Leviticus 19:18" in respect of 5:33, 'Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.' If Paul is consciously mirroring his instruction to husbands on the royal law then he is appropriating the guiding principle for the conduct of all social relations: treat one another fairly and justly as you yourself wish to be treated. Of course in Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul pushes husbands to love their wives deeply, with the sacrificial love Christ has already shown the church. From that perspective we could say that 5:33 means that while a husband's love for his wife should be of the deepest kind, ready to make the greatest sacrifice for his beloved, he should also act at all times with justice and fairness.

In turn that means that talk of 'subordination', 'submittedness' and 'respect' on the part of the wife (5:22, 24, 33) cannot be about a power imbalance in the spousal relationship, because that would be less than justice. The difficulty we have today, in a world not only acutely sensitive to what justice means, but also horrified at the many ways in which relationships become abusive, is that we cannot 'hear' promises to 'submit' to another person as coherent with that relationship being justly conducted. The lack of appreciation of the Sydney proposal by the wider city, and by others in the church reflects, I suggest, this inability to hear these promises as (I am sure) the Diocese intends them to be heard. Thus, unwittingly, the Diocese has set up a blockage to the gospel being heard as a gospel of (just) love. For such reasons I suggest the proposed service is quietly let go.

How then do we understand  Ephesians 5:22, 'Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the lord'? In the light of James 2:8, You do well to fulfil the royal law, this command must mean that wives are not being asked to submit, or be subject to their husbands in a manner which imbalances the power in the relationship. How so? One possibility to consider is that wives who are tempted to lord it over their husbands (an entirely theoretical possibility to consider, I know!!) are being asked here to engage justly with their husbands, by respecting and living under the authority of their husbands. How could wives who are tempted to lord it over their husbands contemplate a way to do this? By remembering that they willingly live under the authority of Christ and obey his commands (principally, of course, the royal law). So also they might treat their husbands.

In turn, husbands cannot misuse or abuse their wives and their willingness to accept their husbands' authority, because they are bound by the same requirement re just relationships. This requirement is reinforced by 5:21, 'Be subject to one another out of your reverence for Christ' and underlined in 5.33, 'love his wife as himself.' Incidentally, this approach to understanding Ephesians 5:21-33 makes good sense of verses such as 1 Corinthians 7:4 (mutual authority over each other's body) and 11:11-12 (neither man nor woman is independent from the other).

If we wished to vary our marriage vows in a new service anywhere in the Communion, in the light of Ephesians 5:21-33, we might consider vows which ask one of the other, Will you treat X with justice?

1 comment:

Father Ron Smith said...

"No, James and Moses point us in the direction of neighbourly love as acting justly and fairly towards your neighbour, just as we ourselves wish to be recipients of justice."

- Dr.Peter Carrell -

Couldn't agree with you more, Peter. This, no doubt, is why Jesus was disposed to make his Summary of the Law - adding only, for emphasis - the 'New Commandment' of Love.