Tag Archives: Messiah

Who is the “Son of David”?

The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Mark 12:35-37

Jesus’ discourse in the temple is unintelligible unless we put on the mindset of the people who were listening. Psalm 110, a Messianic prophecy, was very familiar to the crowd in which David said, 

The Lord said to my Lord, 
“Sit at my right hand 
until I place your enemies under your feet.”

The reference to “my Lord” was understood to be “the Christ” or “Anointed One,” a king who would come from the line of David. The expectation of a “Son of David,” the primary title for the coming Messiah, was cultivated for centuries and shaped the cultural lens. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel foretold that a shoot or righteous Branch would spring from the stump of Jesse, a Davidic child and king whose name would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). So ingrained was the hoped-for descendant of David that those who heard him and sought his healing power often cried out to him, “Son of David!” If Jesus was the Messiah, then he would sit on the throne of David and “shepherd” his flock (Ezekiel 34:23).

Jesus knew his audience well and opened with the question, “How do the scribes claim that the Christ is the son of David? …David himself calls him ‘Lord’; so how is he his son?”

Familiar words, yet it never dawned on the scribes to make the connection between sonship and lordship. Why would David call his own descendant his Lord? In this psalm, Jesus pointed out, David declares that his descendant will be equal in dignity and authority with God—one who “sits at His right hand.”

The prevailing mindset viewed the “Son of David” as an anointed king according to the flesh alone—a purely biological descendant of David. The idea that this Son is eternally begotten of God and would enter time in the womb of a Virgin Mother was completely out of their orbit. Centuries and centuries of oral tradition, rabbinic discussions, dinner conversations and “cocktail parties” had painted the “Son of David” as a political or military hero come to establish an earthly kingdom. Up until the last hour of Jesus’ earthly mission, at the Ascension, his disciples were still asking, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Cultural consciousness does not easily shift.

Jesus’ greatest challenge was transforming minds to look beyond to the heavenly kingdom, and gaining acceptance of his identity as the Son of God. Moving an ancient mindset was more difficult than raising the dead. At a mere word, lepers were healed and the lame walked, but opening the minds of free thinking persons to “see” the familiar in a new light was no easy task. 

Against the backdrop of Judaism, the later reflections of St. John, St. Paul and the Church Fathers represent a seismic shift in consciousness. Flights into the “Word made flesh,” and of an eternal Son who sits at the right hand of—not just God, but the Father (Ephesians 1:17-21)—are from another universe of thought all together. 

Step one is simply recognizing that the “Son of David” is divine. Step two—that the Son is equal to God the “Father”—is a paradigm shift. Step three—that the Spirit who “proceeds from the Father” will come to dwell in us—is yet another shift. St. John included the Last Supper Discourse in his Gospel, in which he gives the fullest revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament, to supplement the other accounts which were focused on the basics of Jesus’ revelation.

In the first four centuries after the Ascension and Pentecost, the Church Fathers advanced humanity’s reflection on the Psalms. In the light of the Trinity, they found new, hidden meanings that eluded the psalm writer himself. For example, taking Psalms 110:3 and 2:7 together, St. Athanasius reflected that it is the Father who says of His Son, “I have begotten You from the womb before the morning star;” and again, “You are my Son, this day have I begotten you” (Defense of the Nicene Definition 3:13).

This insight surpassed the limited goal of Jesus at the temple, which was simply getting to step one. St. Athanasius was not reading something alien into the Psalms, for Jesus affirmed that David was “inspired by the Holy Spirit” when he wrote it. Prophets are sometimes unaware, as when the high priest Caiaphas declared that one man should die for the people (John 11:50).

-GMC

Elijah

Elijah
Jesus came into a Jewish world expecting a Messiah, but what kind of Messiah were they hoping for? Some Jews of the time expected a royal Messiah, the Son of King David. You see that expectation in the Gospel of Matthew which begins by tracing the human origins of Jesus back to David. “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David and Son of Abraham.”

Hope for a Messiah like the warrior King David who would free the land of Israel from its oppressors grew stronger among the Jews after the Roman occupation of Palestine by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC. It can be seen in some of the Essene writings discovered from Qumran in recent times.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates that ordinary people too were hoping for a kingly messiah at the time of Jesus. “Can this be the son of David,” the crowd says after he cured a man who could not see or speak. (Mt 12,23) “Hosanna to the son of David,” the crowd says as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. (Mt 21,9) That causes the leaders in Jerusalem to become angry, because a claim like that could fire revolution and they feared what would happen because of it. (Mt 21.15)

Jesus never claims to be a political revolutionary, however. He refuses to fit neatly into that kind of messianic expectation. He will not lead an uprising against the Romans. He’s not John the Baptist come back from the dead. “Jesus is not confined to playing an already fixed role–that of Messiah– but he confers, on the notions of Messiah and salvation, a fullness which could not have been imagined in advance.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission)

If we ask what messianic expectation of his time Jesus comes closest to, we might find it in the hope for a prophetic messiah like Elijah, who is featured in our readings this week.

Like Elijah, he will speak the truth against the powerful, he will help the poor, he will suffer persecution; he will raise the dead.

And Don’t Look Ahead

Strange thing to say, isn’t it? We want to see what’s ahead. But in Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem–which we read from this Sunday– Jesus warns his disciples as he nears the Holy City to be wary about what they see coming.

First, some disciples like James and John thought the journey would bring about the kingdom of God on earth and they wanted a big place in it. Their dream didn’t come true. Then, other disciples as they entered the city saw the temple itself, “adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,” and believed something so beautiful would go on forever. They were wrong too.

Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

We have to be wary of messianic claims from those who claim to know the future. “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,” and “The time had come.’ Do not follow them!” Jesus says. The future is in God’s hands, not in ours.

The journey Jesus makes does not end in Jerusalem, according to Luke, it’s completed in his resurrection, and that will surprise us. Luke’s account of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem offers the surprising promise he makes to the thief crucified on his right, whose only hope is in him. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

That’s the future we trust in.

Going to Mount Carmel: the Prophet Elijah

The Bible Today, edited by Fr. Donald Senior, CP, is always worth reading, The current issue has some fine articles about Messianism written by top scripture scholars. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Peter says at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks him who people say he is.  We may forget that Jesus was not born Jesus Christ; the appellation “Christ” meaning “Messiah” was added later to his name by his followers. Peter wasn’t alone in this declaration: “We have found the Messiah (which means Anointed,” his brother Andrews says. (Jn 1,41)

Jesus came into a Jewish world expecting a Messiah, but what kind of Messiah were they hoping for? Some Jews of the time expected a royal Messiah, the Son of King David. You see that expectation in the Gospel of Matthew which begins by tracing the human origins of Jesus back to David. “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David and Son of Abraham.”

Hope for a Messiah like the warrior King David who would free the land of Israel from its oppressors grew stronger among the Jews after the Roman occupation of Palestine by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC. It can be seen in some of the Essene writings discovered from Qumran in recent times.

The Gospel of Matthew  indicates that ordinary people too were hoping for a kingly messiah at the time of Jesus. “Can this be the son of David,” the crowd says after he cured a man who could not see or speak. (Mt 12,23) “Hosanna to the son of David,” the crowd says as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. (Mt 21,9) That causes the leaders in Jerusalem to become angry, because a claim like that could fire revolution and they feared what would happen because of it. (Mt 21.15)

Jesus never claims to be a political revolutionary, however.  He refuses to fit neatly into that kind of messianic expectation. He will not lead an uprising against the Romans. He’s not John the Baptist come back from the dead. “Jesus is not confined to playing an already fixed role–that of Messiah– but he confers, on the notions of Messiah and salvation, a fullness which could not have been imagined in advance.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission)

If we ask what messianic expectation of his time Jesus comes closest to, we might find it in the hope for a prophetic messiah like Elijah.

Like Elijah, he will speak the truth against the powerful, he will help the poor, he will suffer persecution; he will raise the dead.

Our visit on November 8th to Mount Carmel, long associated with Elijah, will help us place Jesus in the context of his time.

The Mystery of the Cross

Mark’s gospel (Mk 8, 27-35) describes a journey that Jesus and his disciples made from the town  of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee– an area predominantly Jewish– to the villages of Caesarea Phillipi, about 25 miles to the north.

The town of Caesarea Phillipi and its surroundings stood at the foot of Mount Hermon where many of the sources of water for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee were located. In Jesus’ time it was also a gentile region where Roman and Greek gods were honored and, as its name indicates, Caesar and Roman power proclaimed.

As he often does, Jesus uses what’s at hand to teach. Here in a center of Roman power he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” His disciples name powerful Jewish figures:  John the Baptist, who stood up to King Herod, and Elijah, the fearless prophet who stood up to King Ahab and his notorius wife, Jezebel. Some compared Jesus to them.

However, Peter, speaking for the disciples, goes beyond these Jewish heros. “You are the Christ,” he says, more powerful than the prophets and certainly more powerful than the figures honored at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is the Messiah come to lead Israel to its high place above the nations.

In response, Jesus tells him he is a suffering Messiah, who will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, will suffer death and rise again. The scriptures had announced a Messiah like this: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” (Isaiah 50)

When Peter rejects this description of the Messiah and tells Jesus to abandon it, Jesus calls him “Satan,” someone who thinks like human beings and not like God.

We’re not far from Peter’s thinking, human beings that we are. The mystery of the cross is hard for us to accept, whether we see it in Jesus or in ourselves or in the unfolding events of our time.

We celebrate the triumph of the Cross tomorrow, September 14th.