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Jesus as Son

Rev. Dr. Nick McRae shares his understanding of who Jesus is as a man, focusing on his role as a son:

Our worship series this month is called THE MAN, and it’s all about Jesus, the man. One of the central truths of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human at the same time. Our hope this month is that, by exploring the full humanity of Jesus and the many human roles he held during his ministry on earth, we can come to a better understanding of his full divinity and what it means for whole universe. Our prayer is that this worship series will help us all grow in the knowledge and love of our amazing God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This week, we’re focusing on Jesus as Son—as in, Jesus the son of Mary and Joseph. The question that arises for me when I think of Jesus in this way is: What kind of son would Jesus have been? I spent some time in Scripture investigating this question, and here’s what I found.

On the one hand, Jesus was a good, responsible, dutiful son, the kind any parent could be proud of.

In some ways, Jesus fulfilled exactly what any parent would hope their firstborn son would fulfil. For the period of his life between infancy and about age 12, the Bible gives us only one sentence: “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Lk 2:40). We learn three things from this. First we learn that he “became strong.” Certainly both parents would be glad of this robustness of health, especially in a time when infant and childhood mortality were very high. Beyond that, “strong” is precisely what Joseph, a carpenter or stonemason, would want his son to be. It was traditional for a son to follow the same trade as the father, and physical strength would have been a great asset to the family trade.

Next, we learn that he “was filled with wisdom.” Surely any parent at any point in history would want their child, especially their firstborn, to be wise. This is certainly true in the Bible. The Old Testament contains many stories of families that are ruined by the foolishness of a son. In the Book of Proverbs, the reader finds numerous passages in which a father is pleading for his son to seek out wisdom above all else. Without a doubt, Jesus’ remarkable wisdom even as a child would have brought great relief to the hearts of his parents.

For the rest of Jesus’ childhood, the Bible gives us only one story (Lk 2:41-52). In it, the 12-year-old Jesus goes missing, and a panicked Mary and Joseph find him three days later in the Jerusalem temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:46). We’ll deal more with this story below, but for now, notice that in verse 51 is says Jesus “was obedient” to his parents. It’s ambiguous in the English, but the Greek does not indicate that Jesus only started being obedient at this time; rather, the Greek verb has a continuous sense to it, and it indicates that Jesus continued to be obedient—that he had been obedient in the past, was obedient in the present, and would continue in obedience and submission to his parents in the future. His obedience was constant throughout his life.

Obedience to parents is a big deal in the Bible! It’s such a big deal that when God gives humanity a list of the ten most important moral teachings, the Ten Commandments, one of those, alongside “don’t have any gods before me” and “don’t murder” is “honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12). In fact, this commandment is spelled out numerous times in the Old Testament, many times with the death penalty attached for those who curse their parents, attack their parents, or shame their parents by being a nuissance to society. Clearly having an appropriate respect for and obedience to one’s parents was a central part of God’s expectations for a child, especially a firstborn son, who would be the primary heir of the family’s property and name. This kind of teaching isn’t just Old Testament stuff, but extends into the New Testament as well. The Apostle Paul, in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans, makes a list of the kinds of people who offend and reject God, and on that list are, among others, “inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 1:30b-31). Notice how “disobedient to parents” is sandwiched right there between “inventors of evil” and “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Clearly people were expected to obey and honor their parents!

A fair number of Jesus’ own recorded teachings during his three-year ministry deal with relationships between parents and children. There are several parables about fathers dealing with disobedient sons, and Jesus directly references the sixth commandment (“honor your father and mother”) a number of times in his teaching. Once, a group of Pharisees comes to question Jesus about why he doesn’t follow the traditional purification rituals before eating. Jesus turns the question around on them them, answering their question with a question of his own: “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt 15:1-6).

Let’s unpack that. In the ancient world, there was no Social Security or MediCare, no matching 401k or 503b, nothing of the sort. Once people were no longer able to do manual labor, it was their children’s responsibility to take care of them and provide for their financial needs. Apparently some of these Pharisees were teaching that adult children were freed from their financial responsibility toward their elderly parents as long as the money they would have spent on their parents was given to the temple instead. Jesus rebukes them for this dishonorable teaching, which not only elevates human traditions over Scripture, but gives people license to break God’s commandment to honor parents.

Jesus personally lived out the sixth commandment by taking care of his mother, even in the final moments before he was crucified. We read in John’s Gospel that, as Jesus hung on the cross, he entrusted his mother’s care and welfare to one of his closest and most trusted disciples, who took Mary into his home as his own mother (John 19:25-27). It seems abundantly clear that care for parents reflects the beautiful heart of Jesus.

On the other hand, Jesus was a perplexing, sometimes enigmatic son who challenged his culture’s assumptions about what family meant and where it fell in terms of his priorities.

Take once again the story of the boy Jesus in the temple (Lk 2:41-52). The wonderfully wise and obedient child Jesus disappears from the family caravan, causing his parents to panic. When they find him after three whole days, he’s back in Jerusalem, sitting among the teachers in the temple. This is amazing! He is clearly so wise that the rabbis are allowing him to sit among adults and ask questions. Surely this would make his parents proud! And yet they’re understandably upset because of the wild goose chase he’s had them on for the last three days. Notice how Mary says, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you,” to which Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Do you see what he did there? This is not completely unlike Jesus telling Joseph, “You’re not my real dad—God’s my real dad!” While I think it’s clear that Jesus wasn’t actually making a disrespectful remark here, it is evidence that Jesus could sense, maybe for the first time, the tension between the desires and expectations of his earthly father and mother, and the desires and expectations of his Heavenly Father.

We read in Mark’s Gospel that, years later, as the adult Jesus is traveling throughout the region preaching and healing, his family begins to think that he’s gone crazy, so they come to find him and take charge of him (Mk 3:20-21). When the people gathered around Jesus tell him that his mother and brothers have come for him, he responds, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then he looks toward his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:33-35). Is Jesus disowning Mary and his siblings here? No, nothing like that. What he’s doing is pointing out the truly powerful bond between those who follow Jesus together and seek after God’s will as a community. This is a new kind of family that goes deeper than blood.

Perhaps one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings about family—about anything, for that matter—can be found in Matthew chapter 10, where he says this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:34-38). Jesus isn’t saying here that he wants people to fight and families to be torn apart because of him; he’s simply illustrating the inevitable result of his coming. Not every member of every family will come to recognize Jesus as Lord, and when the conflict over him arises, people will have to choose whether they’ll be obedient to Jesus or obedient to their family members. Jesus teaches that, even at this terrible cost, people who love him will choose allegiance to him over everything else in their lives. In an ancient culture in which loyalty to family was an even more ingrained social expectation than it is in ours today, Jesus’ teaching would have been absolutely scandalous.

All in all, the perfections and complications of Jesus’ family experience point to the holy mystery of his incarnation—full humanity and full divinity together in a way the world had never seen before.

Check out a message from Pastor Nick about Jesus as son and join us next week as Rev. Daniel Humbert offers a reflection on Jesus as Friend!


Posted by Alyssa Robinson at 7:00 AM
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