Commentary on Ephesians 5:15-20
Most of Ephesians is found in the Revised Common Lectionary
except for, chiefly, 5:21-6:9 (the Household Codes) and 5:3-6 which describes even more specifically than today’s epistle disobedient behaviors — equating, for example, fornication and impurity with vulgar talk. Greed, we are told in 5:6, as a mark of idolatry, prohibits inheritance of the kingdom. When we hear the counsel of today’s epistle, we may hold in mind how seriously the letter as a whole depicts the church’s life.
Addressed to the church in Ephesus but presumed to have been circulated to many churches, Ephesians 5:15-20 fits well within the framework of today’s governing scripture — the Gospel reading — and the congenial imagery of Proverbs. Both tell us that this Sunday is about the food of true life. The living bread is given — body and blood — for the beloved community.
The promises of the Gospel on this Sunday may make it possible to hear the epistle’s commands in the spirit of their intention. Jesus’ promise in John is all gift: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Without that promise, the admonitions of this epistle text can seem impossible and harsh: “Be careful…” “The days are evil.” “[U]nderstand what the will of the Lord is.” Apart from the gospel, such commands may cause ulcers (how can we know possibly God’s will?!) and contort our view of creation (everything is evil?!). Set, however, in the invitation to come and eat what wisdom and the living bread have set before us, the goodness of Ephesians 5 becomes clear, for to “be filled with the Spirit…” is to live with joy and gratitude.
This passage sets forth stark alternatives aimed specifically at living a life that is centered in worship: singing (lalountes) and giving thanks (eucharistountes) in the name of the Lord. This passage also lays out a pathway to that life by setting up stark oppositions. One scholar sees three oppositions in Ephesians 5:1-20: love vs. lust, light vs. darkness, and wisdom vs. foolishness.1 The text for this Sunday focuses on the last of these.
Immediately preceding it is a description of behaviors appropriate to a life of wisdom (read in Lent, Year A — Ephesians 5:7-14). The language is considered to be an ancient baptismal chant: “Sleeper, awake!/ Rise from the dead,/ and Christ will shine on you.” (5:14b) Were we to ask what it means to awaken, we would be answered by the first words of today’s text, admonishing us to “Be careful…”
Once the church has been awakened from “the dead,” we are called to pay attention to how we spend our time. We are given three more oppositions: 1) live “not as unwise people but… wise,” 2) “do not be foolish, but understand” the Lord’s will, and 3) “do not get drunk… but be filled with the Spirit.” The church is here shown the shape and substance of a life of love, light, and wisdom, the themes of the entire epistle. The text cautions against specific actions that do not “make the most of the time,” do not, in effect, treasure creation so that we aim for living eucharistia — a life of thanksgiving. We are to “make the most of the time” (exagorazomenoi — “snapping up” bargains; saving what would otherwise be lost) because it is precious.
God has given us time, ourselves, and Earth in and through which to exercise reverence by being wise, focused on God’s desire for all creation, and Spirit-filled. We honor God’s gifts when we attend to its profundity, acknowledging that creation and our own lives actually matter. If we spend our days numbed to God’s gifts (that is, inebriated by a myriad of possible anesthetics, including greed, power, contempt for others, and all manner of unfocused indulgences), we cannot experience life “filled with the Spirit.”
The contrast here is between going along with social norms and, conversely, being directed by a more penetrating source of purpose. These admonitions are not meant to be legalisms that straitjacket joy; they articulate contrasts that can help us see our true identity as beloved of God in Christ Jesus. To be filled by the Holy Spirit is, in fact, to be baptized and, thus, invited to the feast of bread and wine.
It is not possible, aside from the presence of Christ, to know the will of the Lord or to make the most of our time or even to be careful! Indeed, a person can choose one path rather than another, negotiate the extent to which we believe we have a handle on God’s will, and learn how to be useful and productive with our days. We may well be good care-takers of Earth and its creatures. But we cannot know most deeply what God has made available to us without knowing what it is to live a life of thanksgiving. The writer of Ephesians describes that thanksgiving as a gathering of those who come together to sing to the Lord and give thanks “at all times and for everything.”
There is a certain irony in a text that sets foolishness against wisdom because, in fact, elsewhere, we have been told that the cross of Jesus is foolishness. What is foolishness in the context of that assertion? What is wisdom? The cross is wisdom. Life in Jesus’ risen presence is abundant life. Yet, isn’t it also foolish? To live a life of thanksgiving in the face of all that is wrong in the world, all the pain and need and stupidity, may seem to some people to be a very foolish way to live. So this passage invites us to think deeply about the relationship between foolish and wise life, to pay attention, so that we live according to what resides beyond the present moment.
1 Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991), 65.