Language and culture are funny things. I remember growing up and going to children’s catechism classes after mass each week. It was a good thing – an important part of how God prepared me to open my mind and heart to His gift of life. We learned all about the heroes and heroines of the Bible. We learned of a God who was intimately connected with His creation. We learned A LOT about the Gospel(s) and all that Jesus did. We learned about our responsibility to be good stewards of God’s good earth and to demonstrate His love to all humankind. And, of course, we learned of the great mystery of God – that God is three in one: Father, Spirit, Son. As a boy this language was no small source confusion for my rather fertile imagination. Combine that with regular nativity scene imagery to help reinforce the humanity of Jesus and what’s a boy to think (especially one who spent countless hours reading tales of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology)? Jesus, Son of God, eternal, never born, but then there’s Mary, but not Zeus the goose (or sun beam) – it all got rather difficult to sort out precisely what I was supposed to picture (even though I could say all the ‘correct words’ easily enough). There was the standard explanation – ‘Father & Son are labels used to describe the relationship between these two parts of the Godhead – not that one is a parent and the other is a child.’ But somehow every time I read ‘Father’ I think ‘dad’ and every time I read ‘Son’ I think ‘male child.’ Some connotations are hard to shake.
Of course there are other uses for the words ‘father’ and ‘son.’ A younger man who follows closely in the footsteps of an older male mentor is sometimes referred to as the mentor’s ‘son’ (and the mentor his ‘father’). If the younger man follows the mentor especially closely so as to execute and fulfill the elder’s plans with exceptional loyalty, he might be referred to as a ‘true son’ of the mentor. We see examples of this sort of thing throughout history – even when the older man had other natural-born sons. So, in this light, maybe the ‘father/son’ language begins to make more sense – especially as the natural parent/child assumptions aren’t in play.
When Matthew begins to introduce the ‘son’ imagery in 2:15 and 3:17, there seems to be a little more going on. The 2:15 passage is especially curious. Here Matthew is quoting from Hosea 11:1 – seems simple enough. Except the verse itself is little more than a statement of Israel’s history (one of many places in the OT where Israel, the nation, is called ‘God’s son’). Difficult to ‘fulfill’ a simple statement of historical fact. But lets step back a little. If Matthew is simply proof-texting, this passage makes no sense. But, if Matthew is referencing a verse in order to include the larger context of the story and bringing ALL of that – well, then we may have something. Remember, we’re still at the beginning of Matthew’s scroll. All of this is still introductory material designed to give us an appreciation for who this Jesus is – material that will be unpacked in more detail later in the scroll. The Hosea passage Matthew uses is part of a larger passage where the prophet retells Israel’s story, and does so in a way as to highlight the nation’s ongoing faithlessness. It seems Matthew is beginning to make the case that Jesus is the personification of Israel – God’s agent in the world through whom He’ll fulfill His covenant promises. This kind of thing has been done before in Israel’s story in the lives of the kings. The question here becomes – will this Jesus (as Israel) simply become the faithless son the nation had long proven to be OR will THIS Israel finally prove to be a faithful son (a true son of Yahweh). Well, the answer seems to come to us in the declaration in 3:17 and in the successful negotiation of the subsequent trials in the wilderness (ch 4). After coming up from the water (after Israel passes through the sea) God proclaims Jesus his beloved son with whom He is well pleased. Immediately following this, Jesus goes to the wilderness for 40 days (sound familiar – just substitute days with years). There, he faces a series of temptations – challenges to his trust in the Father’s plan and ability to sustain him. In each triumph, Jesus responds to the devil by connecting the moment to a point in the Exodus/Deuteronomic record that recalls a point where the nation failed as a son in its trust in Yahweh.
Matthew seems pretty clear in the point he’s trying to make. Yahweh is not a new daddy and Jesus is not, nor ever was his little boy. Rather, Jesus now stands as Israel, the faithful son and now fully invested agent of Yahweh’s purposes. Jesus, son of God.
– Pastor Jim Kushner