Column: Double meaning underlies Paul’s passage

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Because of limited resources, it is important to make the most of what you have. For example, a guest room in a home might double as a study or sewing room when no visitor is staying in it. At the church, a nursery might serve as the dressing room for the bride when a wedding is taking place.

We human beings make the most of what we have — not only with material resources, but also with mental constructs. A language with limited vocabulary will often have the same word carry several meanings, depending upon the context.

Ancient Hebrew is such a language. In an attempt to stretch its relatively small number of words, it often assigned words double duty. This may strike us as a poetic and imaginative way of speaking. At the heart of it, though, is simply the desire to communicate.

Our reading offers us a good example of this. St. Paul wrote his Letter to the Philippians in Greek, not Hebrew. However, he often quoted from the Old Testament, which was originally written in Hebrew. And that is the case here: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2: 9-11).

These words reflect those of the prophet Isaiah: “By myself I swear, uttering my just decree and my unalterable word: to me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear” (Is 45:23). Who is it who is speaking in this passage of Isaiah?

Who presumes to swear by his own name? (“By myself I swear.”) It is God. The preceding verse clues us in: “Turn to me and be safe, all you ends of the earth, for I am God.”

In this passage of Isaiah, God is addressing the world and offering it salvation. In announcing that God has bestowed upon Jesus the “name that is above every other name,” St. Paul is saying that Jesus has received the name of God. But what does that mean?

When we think of a name, we can understand it simply as a label to conveniently differentiate one object from others. It is a glorified serial number. That is a pragmatic way of looking at it.

On the other hand, ancient cultures often regarded the name as revealing the inner nature of the person or object it designated. A name did not merely indicate identity. It captured some of the essence of the person.

That would especially hold true for the name of God. Out of reverence for that sacred name, the ancient Hebrews avoided pronouncing it out loud. They also wished to protect it from misuse by magicians, wanting to exploit its mystic powers. After all, the name that could make every knee under heaven bend could work any miracle. It could be a word of power in a magical incantation.

That is one possible interpretation to St. Paul’s words. By assigning Jesus the name above every other name, God is revealing that Jesus shares in the true nature of God, the awesome power and majesty of God.

At the same time, there is another possible interpretation, which is compatible with the one just mentioned. This second interpretation relates to the fact cited previously — that in ancient languages such as Hebrew, a word would often carry more than one meaning because of the limited size of the language’s vocabulary.

The word “name” is a good example. In Hebrew, it can also mean “reputation.” When the Bible talks about “praising the Lord’s name,” it means glorifying his reputation.

That is also the “name above every other name” that God has given to Jesus. God has given Jesus a share in his glory, to reverse the shame that Jesus had embraced: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). God has greatly exalted Jesus, and given him the reputation above every other reputation.

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