A Commentary by John Stott
“Alienation’ is a popular word in contemporary society. There are many people, especially young people in the so-called ‘developed’ world, who are disillusioned with ‘the system’, critical of ‘the technocracy’ and hostile to ‘the establishment’, who describe themselves as ‘alienated’. Some work for reform, others plot revolution, others drop out. In no case can they accommodate themselves to the *status quo*.
It was Karl Marx who popularized the word, having himself taken it from the German theologian, Ludwig Feuerbach. Marx understood the plight of the proletariat in terms of economic alienation. Every worker puts into his craftsmanship a part of himself. When his employer then sells his product, he is guilty, at least in part, of alienating the worker from himself. This according to Marx was the basis of the class struggle.
Nowadays the word is used more generally of the working man’s alienation not only from his achievement and its due reward, but also from the exercise of power, especially in decision- making. In other words, the term has become more political than economic. ‘Alienation’ is partly a sense of disaffection with what is, and partly a sense of powerlessness to change it. This is a widespread feeling in the democratic countries of the West, and Christians would be foolish to ignore it.
But long before Feuerbach and Marx the bible spoke of human alienation. It describes two other and even more radical alienations than the economic and the political. One is alienated from God our Creator, and the other alienation from one another, our fellow creatures. Nothing is more dehumanizing than this breakdown of fundamental human relationships. It is then that we become strangers in a world in which we should feel at home, and aliens instead of citizens.
The letter to the Ephesians alludes to both these forms of alienation. Indeed, Paul uses the word in relation to both conditions. The Greek verb is *apallotrioo* and means to estrange, exclude or alienate. In the New Testament it occurs only in these two Ephesian verses, together with the Colossians parallel to one of them:
4:18 ‘alienated from the life of God’ (cf.Col.1:20,21) 2:12 ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel’
Now this double alienation, or rather its replacement by reconciliation, is the theme of Ephesians 2. In the first half of the chapter (verses 1-10) human beings are depicted as alienated from God. The verb is not actually used there, as it is in 4:18, but this is without doubt what is meant when they are portrayed as ‘dead through…trespasses and sins’ and ‘by nature children of wrath’ (verses 1,3). We considered in the last chapter the meaning of these phrases.
The second half of Ephesians 2 (verses 11-22), which is our text in this chapter , human beings are depicted as alienated also from one another. In particular, Gentiles are described as ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel’ (verse 12). It is almost impossible for us towards the close of the twentieth century AD to think ourselves back to those days when humanity was deeply divided between Jews and Gentiles. The Bible opens with a clear declaration of the unity of mankind. But after the fall and then the flood it traces the origins of human division and separation. It may seem that God himself contributed to the process by choosing Israel out of all nations to be his ‘holy’ or ‘distinct’ people. But we need to remember that in calling Abraham he promised through his posterity to bless all the earth’s families and that in choosing Israel he intended her to become a light to the nations. (cf. Gen.12:1-3; Is. 42:1-6; 49:6). The tragedy is that Israel forgot her vocation, twisted her privilege into favouritism and ended by heartily despising – even detesting – the heathen as ‘dogs’. William Barclay helps us feel the alienation between the two communities, and the deepseated hostility between them, especially on the Jewish side. He writes:
The Jew had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he had made… It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother in her hour of sorest need, for that would simply be to bring another Gentile into the world. Until Christ came, the Gentiles were an object of contempt to the Jews. The barrier between them was absolute. If a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or if a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the funeral of that Jewish boy or girl was carried out. Such contact with a Gentile was the equivalent of death.