We have no greater challenge as followers of Jesus than this, holding together two very disparate world views into a new one of the Kingdom of God. That is the truth.
When we get to this section of Ephesians it is good to be reminded that what the author is doing is bringing together two very different communities, Jewish followers of Jesus, and now the Gentiles, who are the Greek speaking Romanized inhabitants of this area.
A little history lesson might be in order.
In 587 B.C. Judea was conquered by the Babylonians, and their normal procedure for subduing a population was forced resettlement, and so it is in this timeframe that the people of Israel lose their land and their Temple. They make a transition from being a people of place to a people of a book, a story, a narrative and sharedbmoral codes by which to live. Torah becomes the unifier in the midst of what comes to be know as the “diaspora” – the scattering.
Jews continued to live in diaspora communities like the one in Ephesus all around the Mediterranean long after the end of the Exile and the rebuilding of Nehemiah and Herod the Great. They continued worshiping at Synagogues locally, gathering around the scriptures, the Torah, and adhering to the customs, teachings and practices that set them aside as a unique community.
One may have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, at least once in their lifetime, but the matter of how we behave and live together as a community continued to be as a people who kept the Torah, circumcised on the 8th day, kept the laws, the commandments and the ordinances. To be a Jew was to observe the Sabbath and keep the Festivals.
In short, how we choose to live tells the world who we are as God’s people.
This is how a Jew in Ephesus would be marked as unique, by living in covenant with God.
When those Jews living in Ephesus became followers of Jesus, (who himself observed all these things as well) they had no difficulty incorporating the teachings of Jesus into the rhythm of their daily lives. Sabbath was still observed, the festivals were kept, the while the commandments took on new dimensions, they were still taught and observed.
“I came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” Jesus had said.
Gentiles however, behaved quite differently. We get clues about that from Jesus in the Gospels when he says, “you know that the Gentiles love to Lord over each other, arguing for positions of authority. It shall not be so amongst you.”
In the code of conduct for the Empire the world works in a hierarchical “quid pro quo” fashion. To get something one has to give something in return. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours and if I can get a ‘deal’ at your expense, well that’s just your bad luck.”
The code of conduct for the Jewish community was one of understanding that all good gifts flowed from God.
The code of conduct for Gentiles was the understanding that what you received flowed down as a blessing from the Emperor who was the one who granted property, position, title, authority, and who expected something in return for what was granted.
The Emperor expected fealty, loyalty, productivity, etc. That “chain of reciprocal gratitude” extended down throughout society, so if you were a Gentile official with a title, you could grant positions to those beneath you, but the expectation was that you would receive something in return. If you were a soldier, you were granted a position of authority, but you were expected to perform certain services in return.
You get from someone, and then you are obligated in some way to give something in return back to the granter of the favor, the person of power, or the one who holds the position.
These are two conflicting world views when you think about it, and they extend to the present day.
One is tuned to a gracious God.
One is tuned to a “get what you can and pay it back” earthly master.
What Jesus was talking about to his disciples at that time was nothing short of a cultural and behavioral change.
“The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
“Whoever would be great among you must become slave, and servant of all.”
These are ideas that fit pretty well in the Jewish understanding of all things coming from God, but not so well in the Gentile world of reciprocal gratitude.
We tend to hear those pronouncements of Jesus as simply metaphorical. “Oh, you want me to be like a slave, like a servant.”
But the force of Jesus’ words, and those of the author of Ephesians are much more than just polite suggestions. The matter of how we treat one another becomes the core of who we are to be as followers of Christ.
Listen to this again with the ears of upsetting Empire.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Nice sentiment, but how does that fit with the way Empire works? How do you do that in a system where falsehoods and guarding information is a way of life? How do you hear that when the understanding is not that you are not members of one another but rather an implicit hierarchy, where some are “naturally” above others?
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
With Jewish ears we hear the commandments echoing here, do not kill, do not bear false witness, do not provoke to anger, be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
But Empire hears this as weakness. Grudges must be kept, tallies held on to, anger is a useful tool for control and manipulation. Anger is a useful tool for exacting payment, imposing will, and demanding returns.
Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
You might think the end of thievery would be in the Empire’s interest of Law and Order, but in truth, many of the transactions of Empire required theft of resources. In the scarcity model of Empire, there is not enough to go around and so one must take from the less deserving to meet the demands of those more “worthy.”
God’s ordinances and decrees made special points to talk about fairness and accuracy in weights and measures.
To Jewish ears “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” rang as the assurance that there would be enough for everyone.
But Empire runs off of supply and demand, and if one can manipulate one or the other one can increase one’s profit margin.
It’s not blatant stealing that is disparaged here, it is the business as usual of taking advantage of the neighbor to in order to advance one’s own wealth.
If there are “needy” it’s because they haven’t figured out how to game things toward their own advantage, Empire has no obligation toward the neighbor unless it is useful for pacifying or getting something in return.
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
You can figure this one out yourself. In the world of politics, and influence peddling, and negative campaign ads, the game is not about building up but rather tearing down. Tearing down one’s opponent to get the upper hand.
That’s why this section of Ephesians seems so pertinent and accessible to us, we still live in the tension of these two world views!
We live in the tension of what our calling to be followers of Christ would have us do, and the plain fact that all of these “Gentile” activities tend to “work” in the “real world.”
Falsehood and half truths are useful if you’re trying to sell something, or influence a vote, or neutralize opposition.
Anger is a power unifying force. Getting people to “hate” makes them susceptible to manipulation.
The transfer of wealth from a less powerful or organized group is the easiest way to rise in one’s own power, influence and wealth.
Evil talk is useful for holding on to constituents, or power, or dismissing arguments against your actions.
So the author of Ephesians begins to address these points where the Jewish and Gentile communities differ in their understanding and world view, and the author does it with full knowledge that the reason it is hard for the new combined community to give up some of these things is precisely because they work!
He is asking those Gentiles who are skilled and schooled at the ways of Empire to give up that way of living.
He is asking the Jewish Christians who may be skilled at God’s expectations to give up something as well. They are to give up their judgmentalism about the Gentile’s actions.
This is hard work, forging a new culture out of two disparate ones.
It will take all the grace of God found in Christ’s living example to get both communities to move off of their predisposed ways of acting and thinking in order to make of them a new community.
It’s a move that pulls no punches. “Put away then….”
It’s a move that recognizes the struggle. “Be kind, tenderhearted, forgive one another as Christ forgave you…”
It’s a move that lifts up Christ as example, as the one to imitate in the midst of a world of disparate viewpoints. Imitate Christ as one who knows sacrifice is a part of journey.
This is the work we continue to engage in, just as the Ephesians did, every time our decision making process bumps up against the collision of these two world views and ways of thinking.
It’s why we have the polarization that we have in our society today.
I wish I could say that everything was finally resolved at Ephesus, that they two communities worked everything out and eventually became the “one” that Jesus prayed for them to be.
There is no story about that happening recorded in the scripture.
Instead scripture is witness to the fact that these tensions are part and parcel of our journey, part of the work for all of us to do.
And that work begins by examining the world view from which you are operating, or demanded to operate by virtue of your job, your upbringing, and your experience.
Today, it is enough to realize that this is the struggle of faith.
We will feel the tension of communities who look at the world in very different ways, and Jesus bids us find ways to overcome those divisions.
Today it is enough to see how each of those worlds work, and to look to Christ as the one to imitate and to show us how to live as we straddle them