Today we return to the Epistle of the Romans but we are going to be speaking more broadly to gain context of our passage. Paul begins as he often does, addressing his fellow Christians as “brothers” as “sisters” for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, but then expands upon that idea… more specifically, that we, as Christians, are all the adopted sons and daughters of God the Father.
This, of course, is not a new idea—to us in twenty-first America.
But at the time two thousand years ago it was revolutionary.
It also had far reaching consequences in society that it doesn’t necessarily have today, specifically in Roman Society. The idea of adoption was loaded down with connotations and ideas that to us, two thousand years later, would not only no longer seem relevant, but would no longer occur to us.
Stepping into their Shoes – The Roman Father
Most of us agree, that a father figure is a very important person in a young person’s life. For those of you who have met my own father—Rev. Dr. Steven Blackburn—it’s obvious how much of an influence he has had upon me and my life’s choices.
However, legally, a person doesn’t need a father nowadays.
Everyone has one biologically, of course. There’s the old adage, “it takes two to tango,” but in modern America, a birth certificate does not even require a father’s name for it to be valid and legal.
Many sadly grow up without a father.
Others, still, grow up happily in families that aren’t strictly the traditional two-parent household. You can have two moms now, for instance. Whether or not you agree, many of you may remember the bumper stickers from the 90s and early 2000’s that read, “Love Makes a Family.”
Why do I bring this up?—because in Ancient Rome it was quite different.
Under patria potestas (or “the father-power”), the father was the be all and end all. He had the power to decide when you came of age in society. If he didn’t like you, you could turn sixty and still be considered a child by greater Roman society. At one point in time, patria potestas gave him the power of life and death over his own children.
A father’s power was all reaching and complete and based off of the blood he shared with his children. This blood bond was sacred and could not be severed without his direct consent. He could deny his child the right to marry, could take your livestock and property (which you only had by his consent), and could throw you onto the street by right of the patria potestas (though hopefully his respect for his own lineage would prevent him.)
But was there Adoption?—yes.
In a symbolic three part sale, re-purchase, and then ultimate sale to a new father (a song and dance that was more ritual than anything), a man could sell his children to a new bloodline in what would be equated with modern day adoption.
Now, quickly, this is not to be equated in any way, shape, or form with slavery even though there is a ritualistic sale. The person who is being adopted, although money is changing hands, gets all of the perks of being born into a new bloodline. He is not being forced into any form of servitude. Think of it this way, modern day adoptions also require fees of various kinds, and modern day adoptions are not (or at least shouldn’t be) an example of slavery.
This was a long legal process and, as such, was extremely rare. There were also several legal ramifications in Roman law.
- The son lost all legal rights to his old family and gain all legal rights to his new family. It was as if he had been born into his new family.
- He became heir to his new father’s estate even if sons were later born to his new father.
- According to the law, his previous life never happened. All old debts were cancelled, for instance. He was an entirely new person.
- In the eyes of the law, he was the son of the new father.
Back to Paul
Paul was very mindful of these four features of Roman adoption. So, when he writes of Christians being adopted by God, he thinks of these four features and knows that they will be front in the minds of the Roman Christians as well. He knows that they will realize they are heirs to God in heaven (point 2) and that their old lives are washed away completely (point 3).
Paul wants them to think of these four points.
Moreover, Paul wants us to think of these four points as well.
Paul wants you to know that you are no longer ruled by sin, by destruction, by sadness, but that you now have a heavenly father.
Paul wants you to know that you do not have a past riddled with past mistakes, but a future brightened by the love of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of your fellow Christians.
Paul wants you to know that all is forgiven, and that you are now home, in the grace of Jesus.
And it is all wrapped up in the idea of Roman Adoption, an idea lost with a civilization that crumbled over a thousand years ago, but that is so important to our reading today.
Take a Moment
I know that the idea of being “Children of God” is something often repeated by Christians to the point that we don’t really think about the meaning. I can be guilty of it myself sometimes. But take a moment and ponder it and let the true meaning of “Children of God” bring you comfort. Take the message to heart and know that you are loved, that you are cherished, and that you are wanted.