Bible Study | November 7, 2016

How do you know my name?

Photo by Barry Chignell

Zacchaeus was literally up a tree when Jesus came by. The story is told in Luke 19. He went up the tree by choice. It was safe. He wanted to be an observer, a critic and not a participant of the scene unfolding in Jericho. I recognize the posture. He was certainly not prepared when Jesus stopped by his tree and called him by name, “Zacchaeus, come on down from that tree. I am going to have lunch with you today.”

Jesus called him by name. That is surprising. There are a limited number of places in the Gospels where Jesus calls someone by name. The use of a name makes Jesus’ call personal and direct. It makes it harder to ignore that call.

Zacchaeus, we are told, scrambled down from his tree immediately and welcomed Jesus into his home. We admire that. Perhaps we even envy that. Would it truly be that easy to abandon our safe non-involvement?

What if Jesus called me down from my tree? “That’s enough evaluating, observing, and critiquing. Let’s have lunch. I want to talk with you.” Is the threat of intimacy too much? If Jesus called me by name, would it give me the strength to break open my shell? Would it shatter my safe position as observer? I would no longer be observing faith from outside, but intimately and personally drawn into the heart of God.

Lazarus was not in a tree. He was already in a tomb. From John 11 we read of Jesus standing outside a tomb and calling, “Lazarus! Come out here!” Lazarus knew he was dead. He had grave windings, a tomb, and the whole nine yards. He was disengaged from life, isolated and alienated. I recognize that posture as well. Sometimes life just drains out of a person. Toxic relationships, routine, past pain not released—a thousand things can simply drain our life until we feel we are roommates with Lazarus.

Jesus called Lazarus by name. Jesus brought new life to the dead. Suppose we put our personal names into that call. It is not just a general call, “Come out from your tomb.” Rather it is a command with our name attached.

Mary Magdalene came to the tomb of Jesus to finish the preparation of his body for death. When she found the tomb empty, she was heartbroken. She stooped to look inside and saw two angels. One said to her, “Why are you weeping, my lady?”

She said, “Because they have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where to find him.” Believe me, that is something to weep about. But as the story is told in the Gospel of John, Jesus was standing right there behind her. That is often the case, but we are so immersed in our grief, our conflicts, our despair that, like Mary, we fail to recognize him.

When she turned to leave, she saw Jesus but did not recognize him. He asked her the same question, “Why are you crying?” She thought he was a maintenance worker. “Tell me where you’ve taken the body, sir, and I’ll care for it.”

Jesus replied with just one word; he spoke her name, “Mary.” That is when she recognized him. Two angels and a vision are not enough when you are looking for the one who once called you by name down from the tree, out from the tomb, or away from the grip of seven demons. Two angels and a vision are not enough to get me out of the tree. But someone who knows my name can reach me. Jesus calls his own sheep by name and they know his voice (John 10).

Someone told of hearing a child pray the Lord’s Prayer this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, how do you know my name?” Matthew did not write the Lord’s Prayer that way, but the child uncovered one of life’s most profound questions. Does the Eternal know me? By name?

The question “Does the Eternal know me?” may be profound, but so is the other question: “Do I know myself?” Many children in early adolescence say they don’t like their name. They say their name should have been something different. It is a part of the struggle for self-identity, the continuous quest to know one’s self.

When God appeared to Jacob in Genesis 35, he blessed him and said, “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob. Israel shall be your name.” God also gave Abram a new name: Abraham. And Sarai was renamed Sarah. Why did they need new names? Perhaps because God knew them better than they knew themselves.

In the book of Revelation, the promise is, “To everyone who conquers, I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17b).

Perhaps I do not know my name. Perhaps there is a “me” so deep down that I don’t know it. If God gave you a new name, what would it be? When we receive that white stone, that new name will call forth, from within, someone who has always been only a potential, rarely realized. It will be our true name, what T. S. Eliot called our “ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

Meanwhile, I’ll be somewhere listening for my name.

An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.