Saturday, June 10, 2006

What's in a Name?

Communion Reflection on 2 Timothy 3:10-17 and Mark 12:35-37

What difference does it make what we call Jesus, or what title we give him?

In today’s Gospel from Mark, Jesus appears to question the title “son of David,” which is given to him in the very first verse of Matthew.

David, the most famous king of ancient Israel, was a poet who is believed to have authored or edited many of the Psalms. He prepared for the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem, which was eventually built by his son, Solomon. In the Davidic Covenant, told in the book of Second Samuel, God promised that David's royal dynasty would last forever, and that David's son would be God's Son.

The Jews in the time of Jesus, therefore, expected that the Messiah would come from the house of David. He would restore the lost glory of Israel and would rescue her people from oppression. The son of David, the anointed one of God, would be a king, a political savior. Even today Jews continue to pray for the coming of the Messiah, the son of David, who would build the third temple in Jerusalem.

Genealogies in Matthew and Luke identify Jesus as a descendant of David, by adoption through Joseph and by blood through Mary. When the angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife, he is addressed as “son of David.” King David was born in Bethlehem, and so the Gospel writers identify this city as the birthplace of Jesus.

The Gospels record that Jesus was called by many names during his earthly life: rabbi, prophet, teacher, and also: the good shepherd, the true vine, the bread of life. Followers impressed by his authority would call him “my Lord,” a title often given to rabbis. The title “son of David” is not that common in the New Testament. In Mark and Luke, the phrase seems to refer not to royal power, but rather to the magical/ healing power for which Solomon was famous. Only Matthew uses this more often and more clearly as a messianic title with royal connotations.

There is some tension in the Gospels between the messiah as the “son of David,” a political or royal figure, and the messiah as the “son of Man (or Adam),” a heavenly figure. Some expected that Jesus would become King of the Jews, and they were disappointed.

In the reading for today, Jesus suggests, by quoting Psalm 110, that the Messiah actually pre-exists David and is superior to him, and therefore cannot be his son. In this way, he renounces the claim of a kingly messiah.

What's in a name, anyway?

According to Shakespeare, “That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet."

We can call Jesus “the Messiah, the son of the living God,” as Peter did. Or we can call him brother, for he told us that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."

Best of all, we can call him friend, for Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel: “I no longer speak of you as slaves, for a slave does not know what his master is about. Instead, I call you friends.”

On the question of the relevance of names, I can’t resist quoting here the lyrics of a song by that famous convert from Judaism to Christianity, Bob Dylan, In “Gotta Serve Somebody,” he sings:
You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy,
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy,
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray,
You may call me anything but no matter what you say,

You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
And this service, I might add, is terminal…unto death. In the first reading from Second Timothy today we heard that “all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

After allowing us to think of ourselves as his friend, Jesus tells us: “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We can easily come up with a long list of names of those who gave their life for the Gospel, from the early martyrs of the Church to Bishop Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King in our time.

It doesn’t matter what name or title we’re called. It’s what we do that counts.

* * *

After spending at least a week in preparing the above reflection, I awoke this morning to discover that I had based it on the readings for yesterday, not today's. I suddenly felt like the man in the garden of Gethsemane, who, when Jesus was arrested, ran away naked. In Paul's letter to Timothy, in the readings today, he says "proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient." Without my well-crafted words to read, presiding at communion today would certainly be inconvenient!

Providentially, the "real" Gospel for June 10 is the Widow's Mite. The scribes "have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood." As a perfectionist with words, terrified at the thought of speaking extemporaneously (despite my debate training long ago), I can certainly identify with the scribes who thrive on admiration and respect, and who "recite lengthy prayers."

So I stood at the ambo and tore up my speech. I recalled that Fr. Cyprian, who led the retreat I attended last week at Mission San Antonio, is found of saying, with St. Paul, that "the love of God has been poured into our hearts." Certainly in the week after Pentecost, that gift of the Holy Spirit is on our minds. What a revelation: We have God within us! The Indian sages are fond of speaking of the "cave of the heart." The Spirit dwells in that cave, speaking in a still small voice. What stands between us and the experience of God within is, precisely, us, the selfishness and self-preoccupations and obsessions about the world that make us deaf to that voice. In contemplative prayer we sit silently before the cave, while the constant chatter of our egos, our selves with a little "s," rattles on endlessly. If that background noise of the self were to stop, we would be face to face with God.

The widow's utter poverty enables her to hear God speak. She is an example to all us scribes who feel naked without our fine speeches and fancy prayers. May we all be naked!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for my Saturday morning meditation, Willie the Wonder! A great combination of Dylan and Jesus, and good stuff to think about as I head out on my Sat. errands/grad. parties, etc. More later....kap
PS Why do I have to type the characters in below??

Anonymous said...