Dividing Walls

The second reading for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time continues with the reflections of Paul (or a superb facsimile of Paul) on human unity in and through Christ. The reading for this Sunday is Ephesians 2:13-18, but I think it is worth drawing in the two verses just prior to this passage:

"So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."


Paul has used imagery evoking the family of God earlier in this letter, and in these verses draws on political imagery (the politeia of Israel) to establish the division amongst people's prior to the coming of Christ, though "family," as in the "children of God," is certainly one way to understand the people of Israel. Now, however, those who were "aliens" and "strangers" (or "foreigners" - the Greek is zenoi), those who did not belong to the covenant people, belong to God through Christ. This division, and the overcoming of this division in Christ, speak directly in the 1st century context to the struggles of the early Church to understand theologically and to make manifest actually the bringing together of Jew and Gentile in the people of God. Yet, this distinction between Jew and Gentile in terms of salvific reality, especially the wondrous reality that God has called all peoples into his family and into his politeia, does not resonate, I think, with the same clarity that it did in the first century. But we ought never forget, personally or theologically, the past role and the continuing role of the Jewish people in salvation history. We can never forget either that it is through Christ "that you who were once far off have become near by the blood of Christ" (Ephes. 2:13).

Paul continues on to say that "peace" has been gained for us through Christ's sacrifice by breaking down the "enmity" (or "hostility") between Jew and Gentile, which he calls a "dividing wall." Indeed, the word "peace" occurs not only in verse 14, but again in verses 15 and 17, apart from the use of "reconcile" which is used in verse 16. Verse 15 also speaks of the "abolishing" of the Law and its commandments, which is difficult to fit into Paul's claims elsewhere that the law is fulfilled by Christ and his followers (cf. Gal. 5:14; Rom.13:10), though in this context it indicates - to me at any rate - that what was a "dividing wall" has been breached to bring together two peoples into one humanity (Ephes. 2:15).

While the split between Jew and Gentile might not be a constant and current concern in the daily life of the Church any longer, it strikes me that these words need to resonate for us with clarity today in new contexts. Paul focuses on how Jesus has broken down divisions, on peace, on reconciliation between parties once in open hostility. Christ has created one new humanity. How do we live this reality of one new humanity within the Church? How do we tear down differences amongst people of different races, nations or political persuasions? Do we build walls where Christ has torn them down? There is a saying in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1, 19, which somehow fits in the context of Ephesians: "Rabbi Simeon ben Eliezer says, if children would say to you, 'Build the Temple,' do not listen to them. And if elders say to you, 'Destroy the Temple,' listen to them. Because the building of youths is destruction and the destruction of elders is building" (my translation)." Let me paraphrase this in the context of the Christian family or polity: if the Messiah has torn down the dividing walls, don't go building them again.

John W. Martens

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