I began this series of articles by pointing out that for St. Paul the fundamental sin is idolatry. Paul devoted much of his ministry to helping his Gentile converts weed out any vestiges of pagan idolatry.
God, in Paul's world, was the God of Jewish monotheism. The concern of the Old Testament prophets, however, was not simply to discourage worship of false gods, it was to call Israel to fidelity to the one God.
Often in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and his people is described as a marriage. In one example, Isaiah tells the people, "Your Maker is your husband; the Lord of hosts is his name" (54.5).
People today have all sorts of images of God, both positive and negative. But I would bet that not one in 100 would describe God as a husband.
St. Paul, however, picks up on this idea big time in his letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 5, he urges married couples to "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (v 21).
The following verses are often read at weddings to describe the relationship between husband and wife. It is hard to read this part of Ephesians today without seeing the marital relationship in patriarchal terms. Wives are to be subject to their husbands and husbands are to love their wives.
If you tend to see relationships as ones of power and domination, the obvious conclusion is that the husband is meant to be the boss, albeit a kind-hearted one.
But in a series of audience talks from July through November 1982, Pope John Paul II put a different spin on Ephesians 5. These talks were part of a much longer series that have come to be known as the late pope's theology of the body, a theology that is having an enormous impact on thinking in the Church today.
In brief, Pope John Paul brushed aside the notion that the marital relationship is one of domination. St. Paul "does not intend to say that the husband is the master of the wife." Rather, it is one of mutual submission.
The importance the late pope saw in this section of Scripture is that Paul highlights the continuity between the covenant of marriage – "the most ancient sacrament" – and the covenant by which Christ gives himself for the Church and is united with her in a spousal manner.
"Marriage becomes a sign of the eternal divine mystery," he said.
Not only does Christ give redemption to humanity, he gives his self. "He gives himself to the Church as to a bride," the pope said.
This allows the pope to talk about marriage in the most esteemed, reverential terms. Marriage is an image of God and it is an image of the relationship between God and the Church. Nothing could be more holy. Almost at a loss for words, Paul writes, "This is a great mystery."
The reason that Paul talks about husbands loving their wives (and not wives loving their husbands) is because that love is an image of the love God has for the Church.
"The essential goal of the love of Christ for the Church is her sanctification," Pope John Paul said. Likewise, St. Paul says the goal of the husband's love for his wife is to make her holy.
In the real world, it may often seem that it is the wife who is struggling to make her husband, if not holy, at least presentable. But the implication of Paul's comments is that when that is the case, the husband is not truly being a husband. He needs to image God's self-sacrificing love for humanity.
The pope went so far as to say that the "interpenetration" of husband and wife is an image of God's penetration into the Church. Holiness is not about standing aloof and above the crowd; it is about being filled with God.
Would St. Paul recognize Pope John Paul's interpretation of Ephesians 5 as an accurate representation of what he wrote? He probably would.
Paul was so taken by the mystery of Christ's love for the Church that the covenant relationship between husband and wife is for him the most fitting analogy possible of that love.