St. Paul wrote ….

Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

(From the Daily Office Readings, Mar. 18, 2012, Romans 8:12-17)

I’ve always been troubled by St. Paul’s “adoption” language. I suppose I’m influenced by one of my favorite authors, the Victorian Scot George MacDonald who, in one of his Unspoken Sermons, absolutely bridled at this notion of “adoption”. MacDonald’s problem with “adoption” is that it suggests that God is not our father to begin with. MacDonald wrote, “Who is my father? Am I not his to begin with? Is God not my very own Father? Is he my Father only in a sort or fashion – by a legal contrivance? Truly, much love may lie in adoption, but if I accept it from any one, I allow myself the child of another! The adoption of God would indeed be a blessed thing if another than he had given me being! but if he gave me being, then it means no reception, but a repudiation.” How awful to find in words meant to build up one’s faith the exact opposite effect! Better to seek an alternative translation of the obscure Greek than to be turned away from God by a poor interpretation! ~ In the New Revised Standard Version of Scripture, the word adoption appears five times, all in Paul’s epistles. Nowhere else. The original Koine Greek in all five occurrences is huiothesia, a word Paul seems to have made up! I am given to understand that the word is a compound one which literally means, “to place as a son.” One Greek lexicon defines it as meaning “to formally and legally declare that someone who is not one’s own child is henceforth to be treated and cared for as one’s own child, including complete rights of inheritance.” Perhaps Paul’s meaning might have been better expressed if this made-up word were interpreted as “inheritance” for surely in this passage that is the point he is making and emphasizes in the next few verses saying we are “joint heirs with Christ.” This seems also to be his meaning in Galatians 4:5 and in Ephesians 1:5, and one could argue that it would make even better sense in the other two occurrences in this letter, Romans 8:23 and 9:4. ~ Not everyone, of course, finds the term so off-putting. Archbishop Desmond Tutu found it reassuring: “God loves us. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less. Our adoption is forever. We are all God’s children.” Certainly, this is the sense we find in Peter’s First Letter. Peter does not use the “adoption” motif, however; he instead uses the same metaphor Jesus used in the conversation from which comes the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for today, the Fourth Sunday in Lent (John 3:14-21). In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus a man must be born again to see the kingdom of God. In First Peter we find the born-again metaphor of John’s Gospel combined with the inheritance argument of Paul: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” ~ So whether it is by adoption, or by inheritance, or by being born again, or by whatever other metaphor one finds meaningful, our relationship to God, the relationship of a child to a father, is eternal and (as we are reminded in the Epistle from today’s RCL selections for the Eucharist) “it is the gift of God.”