by Paul Franklyn
When our daughter was five years old, she began to understand what we meant by the existence of her birthmother. We realized one evening during an Advent bedtime story that she grasped how someone other than us gave birth to her. As she listened to a story about the birth of Jesus, she startled us with a remark that Mary was the birthmother of Jesus.
Now and then I ponder what the birthmother analogy might mean for our understanding of Jesus as fully human and fully divine (God’s son). This birthmother analogy can take us down the rabbit hole, but at the root level of the metaphor, our personal and life-giving relationship with God is best understood through the analogy of family. Each of the five core covenants between God and God’s people in the Bible are demonstrated through epic family stories that embody our longing and inherent need for faithful love. Recall the first flawed human families in Genesis 1–9; Israel’s first families in Genesis 12–50; the family Instruction (torah) from Moses in Exodus through Deuteronomy; and David’s tragically flawed family in the books of Samuel and Kings. Then finally in the gospel stories, we learn that in God’s realm each one of us, whether Jew or Gentile, are born again and adopted into a new covenant family. The letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians stress that we are each adopted heirs of Christ.
With enough patience and data, a genealogist often emerges in the family to construct a family tree, which shows the relationships (father, son, mother, brother, daughter, and so on) that extend back through many generations. If we look closely at a family tree, each person on the tree begins to exist when two distinct branches are grafted together to become a new branch on the tree.
Therefore, an adopted person grafted into the family tree is no different in status or relationship than any other branch in the tree. In Romans 11:17, this grafting analogy is the basis for expanding God’s covenant family to include every person, regardless of ethnicity, whether Jew or Gentile. In God’s new family household, our bloodlines no longer count for anything—indeed, we can stop all the tribal blood feuds—because the body and blood of Jesus constitute our new family relationships.
As adoptive parents twenty-six years ago, we participated in a support group with other prospective parents, and each couple submitted to a home study. We wrote personal memoirs about our families, opened our home to a safety inspection by the fire department, and had many counseling sessions with a social worker. We met Ariel’s birthmother; these were the earliest years of open adoption. Upon legal adoption and the formal change of the birth certificate after a year of parenting, we signed a covenant agreement before a family judge that at a minimum we would be fully and legally responsible for our daughter until she was emancipated. In actual experience, as any parent knows, it is an unconditional lifetime commitment. We celebrate that adoption day each year as a second birthday.
During the adoptive waiting period, about a month before birth, many friends and coworkers would ask what we knew about the birthparents—perhaps because the questioners might be wondering (hypothetically and anxiously) if they would have reason to say, No, we don’t want that child. In fact, the birthmother actually chose us to be Ariel’s parents. We learned to respond that each of us is God’s adopted child—without any conditions. Would God adopt and through divine grace love any of us in God’s household if it mattered who conceived us, how it happened, or what is flawed in us?
When I think of Ariel each day, and pray for her, our Daddy-daughter relationship is based in the same faithful covenant love that any family ought to experience. Sometimes she even calls me Abba as a term of endearment. As she matures, as she makes mistakes, and suffers inevitable loss or sometimes-unspeakable pain, I get the chance to learn and understand the impact of unmerited grace and forgiveness, because God first loved—and adopted—me.
Paul Franklyn directed the Common English Bible translation and is Associate Publisher at Abingdon Press for Bibles, leadership resources, and academic textbooks.