An Ash Wednesday reminder about the best use of time – from ancient Ephesus.
Recently, a phrase keeps pricking my thoughts with disconcerting urgency, like a dissonant interval that sharpens and intensifies a melody. Toward the end of a letter attributed to Paul of Tarsus, a teacher of the Jewish law, comes this exhortation: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time,” or translated another way, “redeeming the time.” The letter containing this statement was written between AD 60-62 to scattered churches, among them the outpost of Ephesus. A city on the west coast of Asia Minor and capital of a Roman province (modern-day Turkey), Ephesus featured a temple to the goddess, Artemis, renowned as one of the seven marvels of the ancient world.
One wonders, why this specific instruction to the church? From what or whom did their time need redemption? What challenges met the eyes of the men and women in this Roman seat that couched the goddess of beasts and wildlands?
Though Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is encouraging and devotional (despite his house arrest in Rome) he also writes with sobriety and firmness, urging this fledgling church towards daily armoring in truth, holding fast to their hope, and having unity with one another. For during the same span of time Paul penned this open letter to the churches, enemies advanced. A Jewish revolt against Rome brewed, Emperor Nero accrued power now that Burrus and Seneca had removed their restraint upon his rule, and persecution of Christians would soon escalate as Nero’s craven madness led him to poison his wife, Agrippina, set fire to Rome, and incinerate Christ-followers to illuminate his dinner parties. The aged fisherman Peter in Rome was writing his first epistle concurrent with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and within a few years was crucified up-side-down.
Ephesus, this nerve center of Roman power contained an added danger–though one subtler–the constant sway of a dissolute culture. Living in Ephesus would have tried the audience of Paul’s letter and constantly sapped their focus and faithfulness. One walking the city thoroughfare encountered honey-mouthed acolytes of Artemis clad in saffron robes; fashionable crowds bound for the Emperor’s temple; eager merchants, with almost as much insistence as Pandora advertising Fabletics, accosting passersby with goddess miniatures, temple-consecrated cakes shaped like stags, and teardrop amber beads like the many breasts of the “Lady of Ephesus.”
Despite the powerful, frivolous, impure culture and immense pressures to resume old ways of living, the church at Ephesus remained vital for some time. In Revelation, the apostle John addresses this same church and commends them for having endured patiently, rejected evil, and toiled for good; Bishop Ignatius addresses them favorably in early 2nd century AD, and Ephesus hosted an ecumenical council as late as AD 431.
However, in Revelation John chastises the Ephesian church for “having abandoned the love you had at first.” We never learn more to illuminate this alarming statement.
Recalling Paul’s guidance to this community about redeeming the time (“exagorazomenoi ton kairon”) offers a clue for living faithfully and mindfully in this day. The Greek phrase in question conveys the idea of eBay’s “Buy It Now” option; that is, buying something out when the opportunity arises, but being mindful of future gain predicated upon wise action in this opportune season. Today, an age when focused attention is the rarest commodity, when merchants and vendors shout from every corner of public space and from the Smartphone in bed, we would do well to consider our ways. Paul still speaks: “[Do not walk] as unwise, but as wise . . . do not be foolish, but understand.” Time is a resource, the quantity of which we cannot predict, only receive in daily cupfuls, shield from lesser pursuits that siphon our minutes and minds and hearts and joyfully empty into good works, informed by wisdom and firmed by courage.