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Politics of Scripture

The Love of a Father for a Son

We look for revelations on the mountain tops—among the most powerful and famous. God’s politics of reversal, on display throughout Luke, call us to re-center this search in the valleys and level places, in the face of the child and the plea of a father.

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ 41Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ 42While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

Luke 9:28–43a

In each gospel that records Jesus’ encounter on the mount of transfiguration, the descent from the mount is shrouded in secrecy (Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; and Luke 9:28–36). In Matthew and Mark, this comes as a direct command from Jesus: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:9b; cf. Mark 9:9), followed by a paragraph of further discussion and explanation. However, for Luke, the disciples’ silence is merely assumed (Luke 9:36).

One effect of omitting Jesus’ exhortation to silence is that the action of the narrative moves more smoothly to the next scene. Specifically, from the revelation on the mountain top that Jesus is God’s son (Luke 9:35) to Jesus’ encounter with another father and son duo (Luke 9:37–38; Matthew 17:14–15; Mark 9:14–17). The positioning of this narrative immediately following the transfiguration experiences serves, in part, to illustrate the failure of the disciples to grant this father’s request to heal his son in Jesus’ absence (Luke 9:40; Matthew 9:16; Mark 9:18); however, the parallels of these father/son encounters are themselves significant.

On the mountaintop, God speaks to Peter, John, and James, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35b). This is distinct from Matthew and Mark in whose tellings Jesus is referred to as “beloved” rather than “chosen” (Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5; see also textual variants of Luke). In Luke, God, as Father, emphasizes Jesus’ election.

Although the adjective “chosen” may point to an adoptionist view that Jesus was called and identified as God’s chosen in a similar manner to the disciples’ own callings (see Luke 6:13), Luke’s prologue identifies Jesus as God’s Son from before his conception (Luke 1:26–37). In the Roman world, regardless of biological paternity, such an affirmation may be read as akin to the ceremonial lifting of a child by their father following birth, accepting the child as the father’s own. From the very first, then Luke clearly indicates a paternal relationship between God and Jesus—this child is to be called the “Son of God” (Luke 1:32, 35).

Moreover, while Roman fathers performed this ceremonial acceptance of children of either gender, to choose to raise a male child carried with it a particular significance. A male child stood in line to inherit from his father’s estate. The father-son relationship in the first-century Mediterranean world, however, was not solely about acceptance or inheritance. It was also, if not primarily, about obligation and socialization. Both Roman and Jewish fathers who acknowledged a boy as their son were expected to socialize that child according to the accepted standards of masculinity which for freeborn boys were expected, eventually, to result in full citizenship, whether in the Roman Empire, the Jewish Commonwealth, or a combination of the two. As Hagith Sivan has demonstrated, within the Jewish family, such socialization meant fulfilling the commandments to circumcise, redeem (first-borns), and teach one’s son the Torah. Here again, Luke’s prologue not only makes clear that each of these obligations are fulfilled in relation to Jesus, but leaves space for connecting each ritual not only with Jesus’ human parents, but with his divine father.

In the case of circumcision, rather than recording that Joseph (or Mary) circumcised his son, as would be the custom, Luke simply states that Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21). When Jesus is brought to the temple by his human parents as a part of the first-born redemption ritual, Simeon and Anna praise the child as the source of Israel’s own redemption (Luke 2:33–38). And when, at the age of twelve years old, Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, immersed in the study of Torah, “He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:49).

Luke’s prologue can thus be read to narrate, in short form, God’s fulfillment of paternal obligations to Jesus as God’s son. This stands in contrast to how the culture at large may have viewed Jesus. Not only does Luke hint that Jesus’ human paternity may have been in question (Luke 3:23), but throughout each of the father-son obligations that Luke recounts, Jesus’ mother, Mary, is uncharacteristically involved, either implicitly or through direct action. (Amy Lindeman Allen, “Engendering Holiness in the Holy Family: Ritual and Relationship in Luke 2:21-24,” in Encounter: A Journal of Theological Scholarship 81.1 (2021): 59-73; no digital link).

When God speaks of Jesus as his “Son” and “Chosen,” then, God affirms for Peter, James, and John that Jesus has been raised according to the covenant. Jesus’ Jewish masculinity is intact and therefore he is one upon whom authority can be vested. Moreover, Jesus’ authority is strengthened because his masculinity originates from a father-son relationship with none other than the divine and transcendent Father, God’s self.

It is at this point in the narrative that, according to the patriarchal power structures of the day, Jesus might have been most poised to exercise his authority—to begin God’s political reign on earth. True to Luke’s proclivity for reversals, however, God’s stunning affirmation of Jesus’ masculinity and authority is not spoken of when Peter, James, and John descend from the mountain. Rather than revealing Jesus’ authority as pedigree from the divine, it is revealed in his act of service and mercy, extended toward a child.

After Jesus, the elect son of God, returns from his transcendent audience with his father on the transcendent plane of the mountaintop, he is almost immediately faced once again with the messiness of existence on the human plane. Whereas God claimed Jesus from the start, rearing him, according to Luke’s idyllic picture, as a model son of Israel, the Jewish father who comes to Jesus and his disciples for help has been met with challenge upon challenge in rearing his son according to these same obligations.

On the one hand, the experiences of Jesus and the boy, as Jewish sons, are similar. One can assume that, like Jesus, the boy was likely circumcised and, if appropriate, redeemed, according to the customs. On the other hand, the unclean spirit that “seizes [the boy] . . . convulses him . . . and will scarcely leave him” (Luke 9:39) presents a significant obstacle to his study of Torah, of which Luke demonstrates Jesus to have been a model student. Since learning Torah was central to the transition from boyhood into manhood in first-century Israel, the boy’s condition threatens his masculinity. Moreover, the disruption caused by the spirit threatens the father’s ability to perform his masculine duties vis-à-vis his son—transitioning him to manhood.

What is at stake in the father’s desperate plea, therefore, is not only his child’s health and place in society, but also the fulfillment of his paternal obligations to him—the integrity of their expected relationship as father and son. Whereas Jesus is portrayed as the ideal son, this convulsing son is by political standards, depicted as decidedly lacking. Nevertheless, his father approaches Jesus for help, embodying the love of a father for a son, which Luke omits from God’s description of Jesus. 

The point, I think, is not that God does not love Jesus. Quite to the contrary, this love is affirmed both in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22) and later in Jesus’ foreshadowing of his crucifixion (Luke 20:13). Rather, in this moment, by the juxtaposition of these fathers and sons, Luke demonstrates that fatherly love is not manifested solely, or even primarily, by the fulfillment of obligations, but rather, by relational support and persistence. 

God’s greatness is not manifested by Jesus’ masculinity or power, but rather, by Jesus’ participation in relationships—both with his disciples on the mountain and the father and son who await them upon their return. The relational realm of God, rather than a patriarchal reign, is embodied in both Jesus’ authoritativerebuke of the unclean spirit and his return of the boy to his father (Luke 9:42). Through this exorcism, Jesus restores not only a father’s ability to complete his patriarchal obligations, but more importantly, the father-son relationship of the pair. Just as, on the mountain, God affirms the Father-Son relationship that he and Jesus share.

Belovedness and election are two sides of the same coin in first-century Mediterranean father-son relationships. It would be a misrepresentation to say that Roman and Jewish fathers did not love their sons, even as they sought to socialize them into the masculine ideals demanded by the patriarchy. And it would be a gross overstatement to say that patriarchy did not continue to define the beginnings of the early Christian movement that developed in Jesus’ name. However, by silencing Jesus’ authoritative claims to election in favor of highlighting the restoration of relationship, this passage presents an alternative form of masculinity, one rooted in love.

Following in the path of the gospel is not always easy on family relationships. As Jesus and his disciples continue from this point to make their way towards the cross, Jesus even acknowledges as a consequence of discipleship that “a father will be divided against his son and son against his father” (Luke 12:53). Indeed, for a father who has socialized his son in order to both inherit and maintain the family’s position in a social hierarchy, an abandonment of such hierarchies that Luke’s reordering of masculinity demands could not help but cause strife. So central is the call to serve God’s realm that Jesus uplifts it above anything else. It is, for Luke, a call to service in this relational realm rather than subservience to a divine regime that nevertheless retains center stage. In these twin stories in Luke 9 we see the possibility for restored relationships when paternal obligations are lived out in service to the gospel.

The turning of relationships against themselves, when it does occur, is not a natural consequence of God’s realm, so much as a reminder that the reordering of priorities, especially those so deeply rooted as authority and masculinity, can have casualties. In this reordering, as Luke tells it, priority is placed not on institutional authority or respectability, though the transfiguration experience certainly suggests Jesus has claim to both, but rather on acts of love and mercy.

Divine revelation does not come to Jesus’ disciples because they have sufficiently demonstrated their authority—indeed, at the same time that the cloud overshadows those with Jesus on the mount, the remaining disciples are proving their continued inadequacies on this front. Rather, God reveals God’s self to those disciples with whom Jesus is in closest relationship in order that they may continue to quest for understanding. Similarly, Jesus performs exorcisms and healings for children whose bodies betray their ability to live according to ideal standards not as an affirmation of these patriarchal ideals, but rather to restore the supportive relationships in which their parents’ requests are grounded. By casting the unclean spirit out of the boy in this text, Jesus grants hope and renewal to both a father and a son whose relationships are tattered to the breaking point; Jesus affirms that they are beloved and empowers them to live in love.

We look for revelations on the mountain tops—among the most powerful and famous. God’s politics of reversal, on display throughout Luke, call us to re-center this search in the valleys and level places. In this text, God is revealed in the face of a child and the desperate pleas of a struggling father. The only Son of the Father returns an only son to his father and in this small gesture, demonstrates the greatness and love of God.

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