The Power of Naming

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Matthew 16:13-20

I share a name with both my father and my grandfather. Due to our family circumstances, I grew up mostly away from both men, seeing them only occasionally on summer breaks or special events. Sharing their name feels like a special connection to them, and to my family. 

However, I never thought much about the origin of our name. It was my grandfather’s and my father’s name, and that seemed sufficient for me. Until recently, I didn’t think to dig any deeper. 

As I read the texts for the Sunday, in both the Exodus and Matthew passages, I was struck by the importance of names:

  • Pharaoh’s daughter names Moses — but I wonder, what did his Hebrew mother call him? 
  • Peter names Jesus as Messiah
  • Jesus names Simon as Peter

Perhaps more striking, we are given a meaning for each of these names:

  • Moses: “for I drew him out of the water.”
  • Messiah: “the Son of the living God. “
  • Peter: “for on this rock I will build my church.”

While reflecting on these names, I began to wonder more about my own. My grandfather, Thomas William Parker, passed on several years ago now, so I texted my dad, Thomas William Parker, Jr. — who also happens to be the family genealogist. To my surprise, my dad wasn’t sure about the origin of our name. Our middle name likely came from the name of grandpa’s adoptive father. But our first name, Thomas? No clue. It’s not a family name.

That was it. My father has cataloged more than 80,000 family connections through his research spanning decades, so if he doesn’t know where his own name came from, it is simply unknowable. 

My great-grandmother, Gladys, was an incredible woman. I remember my visits with her fondly as a young child, and she is revered in our family. However, she lived a hard life. Her mother died when she was young, and her father abandoned her and her siblings. They were taken in by a couple, but the man wound up assaulting and ultimately impregnating my great-grandmother when she was still just a young teenage girl. I’m not sure of all the details, but eventually, she was married to William Parker, who agreed to adopt the child she was carrying –my grandfather. 

Abandoned by her father, assaulted by the man who was supposed to be her caretaker, and then wed to a near-stranger – it makes sense that Gladys didn’t want a family name for her first-born. And so she created a new family name of her own — and through it passed down a legacy both of grit and love. 

As I pondered all of these namings, re-namings, and family history, I began to think of other occasions in the Bible where names are prominent. The creation story in Genesis quickly came to mind. 

In Genesis 1, God looks over all the wonders of creation and names them as Tov. Commonly defined as “good,” my new friends Becky Patton and Steve Wiens have helped me add another layer of meaning to this Hebrew word. Tov is not merely good — it carries the meaning of something which is life-giving. To be tov is to be generative, even creative. The creation becomes co-creator with God and, in turn, brings forth life.

Names — and especially the act of naming — hold power. In Genesis 2, God shares this power with humanity, bringing all the living creatures to be named by Adam. 

Pharaoh’s daughter names the babe Moses because she drew him out of the water – and Moses goes on to draw his entire people out of the waters of the Red Sea.

Peter names Jesus as the Messiah — and indeed, Jesus is the anointed one who delivers us from the bondage of sin, freeing us to join again in the life-giving, co-creative family of God.

Jesus names Simon as Peter, the rock on which he will build his ekklesia — and the ekklesia built on that rock continues to this day. 

Here are some questions to reflect on:

  • Who named you?
  • Why were you named with your particular name?
  • What does your name mean?
  • How are you naming others? 
  • What names are you giving to God? 

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