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What's in a Name?

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. ~ Proverbs 22:1

I’ll admit, I don’t remember many details from my junior high English unit where we read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I found the play itself to be a bit overrated and was much more fascinated by the theater culture of the time. I do, however, remember one line from the play:

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The point Romeo is making in this line is that his family name and Juliet’s family name shouldn’t matter. It is the fact that they love each other which should be the only that matters. And because of that love, they will find a way to be together regardless of their family’s feelings, opinions, and feuds. As someone with an incredibly uncommon last name, who grew up in a rural area where who you were related to mattered, Romeo’s logic never really made a lot of sense to me. Of course the name matters.

The Jewish culture of 2000 years ago understood just how much a name matters. A person’s name was more than a handy device to get someone’s attention. It was meant to reflect a person’s character and to declare their destiny. Jesus demonstrated this when he changed the name of one of his disciples from “Simon,” meaning “one who hears”, to “Peter,” meaning “rock.”

I feel like there is still a sense of this deeper purpose for names still today. One of the first questions parents of infants are often asked is “what did you name him/her”? The choice of name rarely comes without at least some story behind it.

Sometimes the name is chosen because it is a family name. Once upon a time I had a co-worker whose family had immigrated from Greece when he was young. I remember talking about the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with him and some other co-workers on break one day and laughing about the scene where Fotoula’s father introduces the family with all the repetitive names. My co-worker got a bit quiet and said, “Yeah, that scene hit a little close to home.” Turns out he was nearly disowned when he failed to name his second born according to the traditional formula for Greek families to name their children. He still chose a family name, just not the “right” family name.

Other times it is chosen because of its meaning. Almost everyone I know who had has a baby in the last few years has shared the meaning of the name they chose for their child. It might not be the only factor in choosing the name but it has been a significant enough factor to warrant being mentioned. I remember looking up the meaning of my name in some random book when I was 10 or 11 years old and learning that Sara meant “princess.” Having never really been a super “girly girl,” it’s taken me a long time to feel like the meaning of my name fit well with my personality.

Names have also been chosen because of the legacy another with the same name has left behind. Authors, actors, saints, sports stars, mentors, and even fictional characters have had names which have inspired parents in naming their children throughout the years. I’ll admit, one of the best COVID-19 inspired comedy videos I have watched is the one highlighting the names of the class of 2026 when they start kindergarten in four or five years featuring names inspired by this odd moment in history we are all living.

Name are important. Especially for people.

The name the Jewish people had for God, YHWH, was so holy that they would not utter it aloud for fear of profaning it. Even today many Jewish people will still write G-d rather than God as a way of showing reverence to God’s name. God’s name is so intricately and tightly connected to God and his holiness in Jewish culture that there is no separating them. Thus, saying God’s name is holy or expressing reverence towards it was the same as declaring God Himself to be holy and worthy of worship. So when Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” he is reminding them of more than the fact that God has a name.

Jesus is reminding his disciples, and us still today, of God’s holiness. This phrase within the Lord’s prayer is focusing us on God and asking God to help us better see the true extent of his holiness. Asking God to "hallow" His name is another way of asking that God would draw people to Himself by demonstrating His glory and power in the world. The context for the rest of the prayer then is this desire for God to be glorified here on earth. In fact, the very next phrase requests exactly that. (And we will look at that request more closely next week!)

Follow Up:

  • What does your name mean? Do you feel like it fits you? Why or why not? If you have children, how did you choose your children’s names? Share the story with them if you haven’t recently.

  • Identify one person in your life who you see somewhat regularly but haven’t learned their name. Perhaps it is the person you see most mornings when getting your Starbucks fix. Or maybe it is a member of the cleaning staff in your office. It might be the person helping to direct traffic at your child’s school as kids get dropped off and picked up. Challenge yourself to learn their name and use it each time you see them in the future.

  • How do you use God’s name? Does it hold any particular reverence in your daily life? How can you be part of making God’s name something holy?

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