How many people know your Social Security number? To whom have you given a list of your computer passwords? I presume the answer to both is “Few or none.” Unless we’re extremely naïve, we understand the risk to our person if this particular number or these special words become public property.
Yet in today’s first reading, Yahweh dares take that risk. No one broke into God’s apartment, rifled the divine desk to acquire such dangerous-to-God information. God freely hands it over to God’s people. “Moses said to God, ‘...When I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” ‘if they ask me, “what is his name?” what am I to tell them?’ God replied, “I am who am.’ Then he added, ‘this is what you shall tell the Israelites. “I AM sent me to you . . .” Then you shall say to the Israelites, “Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob has sent me to you.” This (Yahweh) is my name forever; thus shall I be remembered for all generations.”
Those who wrote, saved, and passed on the Hebrew Scriptures believed a person’s name not only stands for that person, but those who know and use that name have a certain amount of power over that person.
Our God’s name isn’t God or Lord; it’s Yahweh: the divine name which our sacred authors use throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. They even employ its abbreviated forms: transliterated as Ja, J0, and Je. We’re all familiar, for instance, with “Hallelujah” (Praise Yahweh!), the name Joseph and Mary gave their son: Joshua (Yahweh saves!) or the great prophet Jeremiah (Yahweh exalts!).
Considering all this, how come so many of us know little or nothing about God’s proper name? A few centuries before Jesus’ birth, some overly pious Jews not only stopped using it, they went through Scripture, and changed the proper name Yahweh to the title “Adonai” (Almighty or All-Powerful One), later translated “Kyrios” in Greek, “Dominus” in Latin, and “Lord” in English. These individuals were worried that using God’s name gave them power over God. Duh! That’s the significance of today’s Exodus passage. Yahweh loves us so much that he/she is willing to take that risk, as we do when we share the deepest dimensions of our personalities with those we love. We’ve all suffered when someone uses something against that we once lovingly shared with them. That’s why our Second Commandment reads, “You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh, your God.” God didn’t say, “Don’t use it.” We’re simply told not to misuse it.
Yahweh couldn’t form an authentic relationship with us without sharing his/her name - no matter the risk. Those who love deeply are always willing to take that dangerous step. Yet, as Paul reminds his Corinthian community, not all Yahweh’s followers have lived up to the trust God placed in them. “. . . (Bad) things happened to them as an example,” the Apostle writes. “They have been written down as a warning to us . . .”
Fortunately for us, Jesus, in today’s gospel, describes a God who, instead of cutting down the unproductive tree, is willing to “cultivate the ground and fertilize it (so that) it might bear fruit in the future.” God often has a deeper faith in us than we have in ourselves. It’s simply part of God’s trusting personality.
Shortly before her 1979 death, my mother mentioned that one of the most significant things she learned in studying Scripture was what I wrote above about Yahweh’s name. “Now when I pray,” she said, “I pray to Yahweh, not just to God or the Lord. It’s made a huge difference in how I think about God. Yahweh’s a real person for me, not just some powerful, impersonal force out somewhere in the universe.”
Try it; you’ll like it.