[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Talk of legacy has been abuzz in the news lately as the American presidential race continues to gear up. The Republican party has been steering a decidedly conservative course, leading former governor Jeb Bush to tell reporters that he was not sure whether the presidential policies of his father and Ronald Reagan would have had a place in the party of today. The New York Times summarized, “Mr. Bush said today’s Republican Party is out of step with the legacy of his father and Ronald Reagan.”
In today’s culture of increasing individualism, some may argue that this is not all bad. It is necessary for the politician to adapt—to grow and change along with the times. Indeed, many voters today will say that they vote for the individual—for his or her particular platform—with little regard for the party, or legacy, in which that person stands. However, for many, legacy still matters—it says something about who a person is, where they come from, and what motivates the platforms or policies they espouse.
This was even more true in first century Palestine. Without a legacy, without a tradition to follow in, a person was lost—outcast. Zechariah’s neighbors expected his newborn son to follow in his father’s legacy. To be a priest, marry, have children of his own, and lead his prestigious family into the future. That’s why they wanted to name him after his father, and why, when Elizabeth announced that the name of the would-be Zechariah Jr. was to be John instead, they objected. “None of your relatives have this name!” they said. This wasn’t an argument over egos or aesthetics. It wasn’t a matter of being concerned Elizabeth might hurt Zechariah’s feelings, or that the grandparents might be disappointed. A child’s name symbolized the person he would become and John was not what any of the neighbors had in mind for this child.
To those gathered, Elizabeth must have seemed crazy enough to break with tradition in so brazen a way…when Zechariah agreed with her, one can only imagine the neighbors’ shock! “Who was this child going to be anyway??” But as the saying goes, nothing is new under the sun…or at least, not really. Zechariah and Elizabeth may have been breaking with the tradition that their neighbors expected them to follow, but the song with which Zechariah addresses his newborn son after his naming makes clear that he is to follow in a much more important legacy…
Today is the traditional celebration of John the Baptist and so we hear his naming story. But there is a tradition in the Talmud that says a person has three names – the one given at birth, the one by which others call him (sic.), and the one that he calls himself (sic.). What tradition dictates each of your names? Whose legacy do you carry? In what ways do the way you live your life—the ways you practice your faith break with and conform to tradition? How does all this play a part in how, for you (and through you) the gospel is proclaimed?
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.