First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
That's what our gospel for Sunday reports that Jesus heard as he emerged from the waters in which he was baptized. We toss the phrase "son of God" around a lot in the church, as if we all know what it means. But what did it mean in Jesus' time?
I'm very glad to have Psalm 89 paired with Matthew 3 in this Sunday's lectionary, as Psalm 89 illustrates what I think was the primary reference point for language about a "son of God" in Jesus' time and culture, and that's King David.
Psalm 89 (verses 20-29) presents God as saying:
I have found David my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him. ...
He will say to me, "You are my Father,
my god, and the rock of my salvation."
I will make him my firstborn
and higher than the kings of the earth.
I will keep my love for him for ever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
I will establish his line for ever
and his throne as the days of heaven.
That image of the relationship between God and David being like one between a father and a son caught on in a big way, to the point where David became the archetypal "son of God" in many people's minds. The phrase didn't imply that there was anything unusual in the way David was conceived, and it certainly didn't imply that David was God. While we confess in the Nicene Creed that Jesus was born of a virgin (however you're inclined to interpret the word -- the Greek word parthenos doesn't mean what we tend to mean when we say "virgin") and is "true God from true God," those things were almost certainly not part of the cluster of meanings surrounding the phrase "son of God" in Jesus' time. Indeed, the things that were most prominent in how the earliest Jewish Christians viewed the term "son of God" have fallen too much by the wayside in popular Christianity today, and I'd like to recover more of the richness of the earliest confessions that Jesus was anointed (and Christ is the Greek word meaning, "anointed") as David (Psalm 89:20) was, and is "son of God" as David (Psalm 89:26) is.
A lot of what is implied in calling someone a "son of God" stems from a son's status as one who inherits the family name, the family honor, and the family's estate or business, and whose call includes building up all of these.
In Jesus' culture, family members share the family honor; the son of a great man is automatically great, and the father of a son who behaves shamefully is shamed right along with the son. Insult either one of them and you insult both. In Jesus' culture, the saying "like father, like son" is not just an observation about family resemblance; it describes the equation of honor between the two.
In Jesus' culture, because sons inherited the family trade and any family land, they literally had a stake in the family business. When the sons do well, they serve essentially as their parents' social security, their only means to a decent retirement should they make it to old age. When the father does well, the sons' wealth increases with the fortunes of the family.
Because of all of these things, sons were recognized as agents of their fathers. Because they share their father's name, a good son can act in that name and with that authority. After all, the family name -- good or bad -- is their name. The family honor -- or the family shame -- is their honor or shame. The family business is their business. In this sense, when we say that Jesus is God's son, we are making a claim for and about Jesus. We're saying that Jesus has authority to act in God's name. We're saying that God is honored by our honoring Jesus. And we're saying that Jesus' activity is Jesus' going about the family business.
That last point in particular is closely tied to something else, something vitally important that proceeds from our confession of Jesus as God's son:
When we say that Jesus is God's son, we're also making claims about God.
That's the point that was scandalous almost to the point of blasphemy for many. "Like father, like son," as they say. When we say that Jesus is God's son, going about the family business, we are saying not only that Jesus is like God; we are saying that God is like Jesus (a point that was well inculcated in me by S. Scott Bartchy, my Ph.D. supervisor). We are saying that what Jesus did -- his feasting indiscriminately with Pharisees and sinners alike, his free association with "loose" (unattached) women and taking them into his inner circle as disciples, his refusal to defend his own honor or his families by retaliating, even to the point of his death on a cross -- was God's business on earth. Indeed, we're saying that the best framework through which we can interpret what God's business on earth looks like is Jesus' behavior.
To those who find Jesus' behavior shameful, saying that Jesus is God's son is shaming God. To those of us who gladly receive the grace of his fellowship, his healing, and his call to us, saying that Jesus is God's son is the best news there is.
As they say in t.v. ads, though: But wait! There's more! In Christ, as our preface for the Incarnation in our service of the Eucharist says (BCP, p. 387), we receive power to become God's children.
In other words, God's business on earth is "Yahweh and Sons" (and daughters, of course!). As God's children, we are co-heirs with Christ. God's business is our business, and carrying out that business in the style of our elder brother Jesus is among the chief ways we honor God. As God's children, God's compassion and God's mission are at the core of our truest and deepest identity.
That's why I love an exhortation that landed in my email inbox (after a long chain of forwards, I'm sure) from Rabbi Steven Folberg of Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas. Folberg encourages us to pray for the victims of the tsunami disaster in countries around the Indian Ocean -- but only after we have acted, donating what we can to help, so that "the reality of your actions lift the word of your prayers." So please, for our family honor as God's children, for the family welfare, which suffers for every member whose life and gifts we lose, for the sake of Jesus', whose self-giving showed us what God's business on earth is really about, help the suffering. And then pray. The prayer Folberg quotes, distributed by the Union for Reform Judaism, is profound:
On this Shabbat, we begin telling the saga of our people's Exodus from Egypt, our journey from slavery to freedom, from servitude to covenant.
We recall that moment of deliverance at the Sea of Reeds when we miraculously passed through the waters, yet witnessed the watery death of others. Rather than rejoice at our own survival, we are taught to hear the cries of the victims; God silenced the angels who would celebrate the survival of the Israelites, proclaiming "The work of My hands is drowning in the sea."
As we gather this Shabbat, we remember the loss of tens of thousands of God's children killed this week in the Asian Tsunamis. We pray that the survivors find strength and comfort. We pray that those who search for missing loved ones be sustained with courage and hope. We pray that those who have lost so much have the fortitude to rebuild their lives. Loving and gracious God, who created the earth in all its fullness, grant them comfort, healing and peace. Be their help, in this, their time of need.
God's children will not grow faint or be crushed until justice is established in the earth. The coastlands wait for God's teaching, for God's children to do God's business (Isaiah 42:4). Amen, and thanks be to God, who gives us power to become God's children, going about the family business.
Interesting commentary on the meaning of Baptism. A lot more in-depth then the way I've seen it explained other places. Thanks *smiles*
P.S. http: // buildingamystery . cbj . net
I don't know why your comment form keeps asking for it and then telling me this when I post it...
"Your comment has not been posted because we think it might be comment spam. If you believe you have received this message in error, please contact the author of this weblog."
But as I'm not "spamming" you I find it rather offensive... a shame, because this is otherwise a highly interesting site.
Posted by: Mystery | Feb 20, 2005 4:58:38 PM
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