12 September – While the days are evil
In a sentence
Make the most of your time, while the days are evil (5.16)
Some Bible texts are too dangerous to read in church, or so it would seem. And so our reading from Ephesians this morning never appears in our standard lectionary readings for Sunday services, and neither do similar readings from other letters in the New Testament. This is to say that, if you’re only going to hear from the Bible on Sundays, this is not a text you need to hear. This means that this text may not have been heard in this congregation in living memory (One of those parallel texts has been heard and considered at MtE at least once!)
Why is this a text we need not hear? The problem will seem obvious to most listening in just now: she subordinate to him in a hierarchy within marriage. And the teaching on masters and slaves is scarcely more palatable today, although we’re probably less troubled by the direction that children should honour their parents!
The problem is that this sounds like divine law, and we are all biblical literalists at heart – believer and unbeliever alike. What else could this be but a moral claim made on us? Or, if we imagine ourselves not to be biblical literalists, we expect that the next person might be a literalist and that she will either seek to impose this understanding on us or be willing – and dangerously so – submit to it herself. We have no desire to return to a social order like this, and so it’s best not to read these texts in church.
Let it be clear that we’ll make no defence of the notion that Paul’s directions here should order our lives today. But we will consider, in a roundabout way, whether it might still have been good that this was written to those who first heard it, perhaps 1900 years ago.
This possibility is difficult to comprehend from the point of view of a strict sense of moral justice. Justice tends to be set, such that if something is wrong once (now), it is always wrong (then). The moral campaigner, or the campaigner for justice, struggles for all people in all times, not least those who have suffered and endured in the past.
As far as it goes, this is a sound argument if we overlook the possibility that a historical snobbery might be lurking within it – us, now, looking down on them, back then.
On this moral understanding, justice and righteousness can only occur when justice (the communal dimension) and righteousness (the personal dimension) are both in place.
Yet, the world is not a just place. Here and there, we strike a workable balance between justice and injustice which is workable for some of us, at least. Perhaps – at least in modern western society – we have moved past the worst of patriarchy and the suffering of slave economies. And yet, our lives are not just, from the perspectives of others. Is the world, then, a place without true righteousness?
Whatever else might have happened in the process of colonization of Australia, we know what did happen, and we cannot change that. The language of justice surrounds indigenous issues today; can any of us be righteous in the midst of it all?
We strongly suspect that the future of life on earth might hang in the balance and that the ‘smart’ – the just – thing to do would be to wind down fossil fuel use dramatically. The solutions are obvious: stop mining coal and pumping oil; perhaps tax large cars highly and transfer those funds to low emission transport. We cannot, of course, do this, even though it would contribute greatly to heading off the threatened disaster. Injustice will abound here. Where will righteousness be found?
The seas are choking with micro-plastics. How hard would it be to wind back plastic production or to skew production towards biodegradable materials? Have we fulfilled all righteousness by taking our soft plastics back to the supermarket?
We know that it is unjust that millions of lives are wasting away in refugee camps and detention centres. Can we do nothing about this? Perhaps, we cannot, even if we started some of those fires in the first place. Can, then, true righteousness be found on either side of those fences, if the fences may never be torn down?
We might quibble about any such injustice and the degree to which we can or can’t change things in any particular case. Yet, the point is that there remains much that is unjust which we cannot change, whether because it is too entrenched or we are too complicit in the structures which oppress.
Is the world, then, as irredeemably unjust, a place where righteousness can occur?
The writer to the Ephesians could not change patriarchy or slavery, if it ever even occurred to him that he might try. What then? What does a righteous life look like in the midst of injustice? More pointedly, because we will come to this in a few minutes’ time: what does the word of divine forgiveness mean when sought by and granted to those whose lives are caught up in variously suffering from and contributing to the injustices of the world?
The moralist in us is tempted to a kind of ethical mathematics, balancing demands, striking compromises or, at the full extent of frustration, flinging accusations about the place.
For all the felt need for such moral calculus, a central faith-question at stake: can the good God ‘appear’ in the broken world? Can righteousness coincide with injustice? More pointedly, can injustice be a source of righteousness, or can injustice be a blessing?
Each of these questions escalates the problem, in turn.
Can the good God ‘appear’ in the broken world? This is what we speak about at Christmas, in particular: God takes on flesh – our flesh. God and the world are seen to sit within each other. This might be an interesting thought but it has little moral traction, which is why most talk about the Incarnation at Christmas doesn’t come close to convincing us that Jesus is better than Santa.
Can righteousness coincide with injustice? The Incarnation can be read in this way, but more moral traction is found here when we observe that, while Jesus was righteous, his rejection and crucifixion was unjust. Righteousness and injustice here coincide in that the injustice is in the wrong reading of righteousness. The moral lesson is, Don’t get righteousness wrong, but the possibility is also raised that we can’t be confident about what is and is not righteous or just. Good people, after all, crucified Jesus.
Can injustice be a source of righteousness? This is surely a horrifying suggestion and raises the moral tension to a fever pitch. Yet, something very like this is affirmed at the heart of Christian faith: the unjust crucifixion of Jesus saves the world, brings righteousness. No moral theory can account for this, despite all the valiant efforts of atonement theorists through the centuries. The true moral outrage of the call to deep forgiveness is revealed here. Jesus cannot be un‑crucified, history cannot be changed, and yet not death but life is granted to the guilty: righteousness under the condition of injustice. The injustice which cannot be changed becomes the source of a strange righteousness: a righteousness which changes the meaning – and so the possibilities – of injustice.
Our passage from Ephesians today – on a charitable reading – does not require mere acquiescence to injustice but a transformation of its possibilities. And so the writer addresses both those who might be oppressed and the ones who might be oppressing them.
If we, today, are beginning to put behind us the legacies of the patriarchy and slavery of biblical times, good for us! But we still have injustice enough to which we are subject or of which we are guilty, and about which there is very little we can do to change how things are or work.
And so we still need to hear that gospel word which responds to what we have done or what has been done to us – the word which, in the guilt and the suffering, miraculously liberates us for whatever righteous thing we must do next in the midst of injustice.
‘You are forgiven’ breaks all moral expectations and possibilities, and sets us free to live toward a deeper justice, making the most of our time, Paul says, even though the days are evil (5.16).
Let us, then, work and pray to discover the shape of righteousness in our own situation, however just or unjust it may be.
In this, we live towards the hope at the heart of our confession: the day when righteousness and justice will finally be the same thing.