Theosis in the Sermon on the Plain? An Intertextual Exploration

Question:
Is it possible that Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is an “intertextual echo” of Psalm 82:6?*

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Plain, says that those who live cruciform lives will be “sons of the Most High.” The wording recorded by Luke directly parallels the language spoken by God in Psalm 82:6 as He indicts the “gods (elohim), sons of the Most High” for participating in unjust actions. Is the Lukan Jesus alluding to this Psalm, and if so, what sort of reading would this create?

There are a few reasons that might lead one to see an intertextual echo here. First, “Most High” is a relatively rare epitaph for God in the New Testament, found 9 times (7 of which are in Luke-Acts: Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48 and 16:17) and only here on the lips of Jesus. Thus, one might be allowed to wonder whether its usage is intentional and not simply standard language. Second (and here we enter into questions of the historicity of the synoptics and John), John’s gospel presents Jesus as not only familiar with Psalm 82:6, but also as directly quoting it as a key text to defend his identity and ministry (see John 10:34). This could again be seen as evidence that Psalm 82:6 was not only available, but extremely important in the minds of Jesus and the gospel writers.

Ultimately, while Jesus’ statement in Luke 6:35 is fully coherent without the intertextual echo of Psalm 82:6, hearing this allusion adds layers of depth to the text. An imaginative canonical and theological reading would find a richness in “discovering” the presence of Psalm 82:6 in Luke 6:35. This is even more true considering the importance which Psalm 82:6 played in patristic exegesis and theology – primarily in the development of the doctrine of theosis.

The Church Fathers regularly referenced Psalm 82:6 as the crowning verse displaying the hope of theosis, or deification: participation in the divine nature of the Triune God. This classically Eastern view of salvation paints redemption as less of a legal act of forgiveness and more of a relational and transformative union. God’s people are given the gift of sharing in the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father through the Spirit and are thus transformed, taking on divine characteristics (such as holiness, incorruptibility, etc).

If we read Luke 6:35 in conversation with Psalm 82:6 and in light of the theology of the Fathers, our reading takes on a new shape. Namely, one can read Jesus’ statement as a revelation of theosis: a transformative experience whereby disciples share in the enemy-loving nature of the Father.  Psalm 86:2 speaks of the moral (injustice) and ontological (enslaved to death, corruptible) deficit which reveals the need for deification. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, speaks of the moral shape which will characterize those who are united with the Father just as the Son is united to Him. Indeed, Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as the penultimate “son of the Most High” (Luke 8:28 – from the speech of a demon). In the Sermon on the Plain, the disciples are promised nothing less than the same title which Jesus eternally holds. The axiom of theosis might then be reframed in this way: the Son of the Most High came so that we might become Sons & Daughters of the Most High.

It is worth noting that the moral standard of sacrificial enemy-love is emphasized here as the center of this sharing in the filial relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus, revealing both the nature of the Father and the essence of relating to the father as a Son of the Most High, is the archetypical enemy-lover. His disciples, as they participate in the divine nature and receive their status as children of the Most High, follow Jesus’ path of cruciform love.

What do you think?
Does Luke 6:35 echo Psalm 82:6?
Do you find it edifying to read Luke 6:35 in light of
Psalm 82:6 and the Patristic doctrine of theosis?


* Psalm 82:6 – “I said, “You are like gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.”

* Luke 6:35 – “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

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