There’s No Grandfather Clause

The noun “Grandfather” appears a few times in the Bible. The verb “to Grandfather” does not. However, if the idea of grandfathering someone did exist in biblical times, it could have appeared in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 3:1-12). In it, John the Baptist was living up to his destiny, preparing a way for the Lord. He was doing that by way of baptism—freeing people from slavery to their sinful roots. While doing this he sees a group of opportunists approaching—bringing with them what they believe to be a “get out of jail free” card—in other words, their connection to the bloodline of Abraham. John isn’t impressed. He calls them a brood of vipers, for good reason. They believed the behavioral rules of the New Covenant John promised didn’t apply to Abraham’s descendants—that they should be grandfathered into paradise by law, not by grace. John responds:

I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

The modern concept of grandfathering someone started during a later era of slavery: 19th century American slavery. After the 15th amendment banned racial discrimination in voting, various southern states tried getting around this by making one’s voting right conditional, based on passing a literacy test and/or paying a poll tax. This, the inventors of this scheme believed, would keep slaves out of voting booths. They didn’t anticipate these requirements keeping some with the “correct” credentials out as well, so, according to Author Alan Greenblatt, “A half-dozen states passed laws that made men eligible to vote if they had been able to vote before African-Americans were given the franchise (generally, 1867), or if they were the lineal descendants of voters back then.”

That’s how “Grandfather” became a verb. That Grandfather has rotten roots.

But Sunday’s first reading (Is 11:1-10) recalls the root from which grew humanity’s sense of justice and the judge who had no grandfathers. Only one Father for all.

On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength … Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.

In Sunday’s second reading (Rom 15:4-9), Paul seems to be addressing humanity of every earthly era. The only way for the children of Adam to be grandfathered into freedom from those roots is by adopting the Holy Spirit of love that’s rooted in Christ and comes to fruition in one another.

Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name.”

The Grand name of Father. Our Father.

–Tom Andel

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