I wonder how many people will hear anything beyond this line in the reading from Ephesians on Sunday morning? There were certainly christians who refused marriage, and those who promoted it in the time during which this epistle was written. There is no question which side the author of the epistle came down on. There is also precedent for what he is doing. Hosea had modeled the relationship between God and God’s people on his own marriage to a prostitute — the people were unfaithful, God was faithful. Isaiah has some beautiful passages about God adorning Zion as a bride God will marry and never again put away.
At best, we are always stumbling for metaphors to describe the divine, and our relationship to it. In the epistle’s day, marriage was a social obligation (refused, especially by women, at great peril). But in the contract, the husband was obliged to nourish, clothe and shelter his wife. What is a little bit surprising is the tenderness with which the author describes our relationship with God. Just as a man nourishes his own flesh and “warms” it (that is what the verb means, not as the NRSV has “cares for it”). Metaphorically, it can mean cherish, soften, and even inflame, as with passion. It seems God may well become passionate for us.
Ephesians sets out a hierarchical relationship between God and the community. John’s Gospel sets out a relationship of near-equality, with the divine and human natures interpenetrating to the point of confusion (the Father is in me, and I in you and the Father in you and the Spirit in everything and so on). Perhaps we need both aspects of that relationship with God. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians used a handy metaphor, without thereby fixing forever the nature of the marriage relationship. Our task is to find similar metaphors for God’s intimacy with us, care for us and relationship to us.