It sounds more like the Gospel of John than one of the synoptics. “Do you not know me Phillip? He who has seen me has seen the father.” “The Father and I are one.” But here it is, in the middle of Matthew’s Gospel.
There is a certain proverbial character to this statement. In that time and place the eldest son was the father’s representative. To do business with one was to do business with the other. To have the word of one was to have the word of the other. People were defined by their families. To know the Father was to know the son. People were not seen as individuals in that day but part of extended families.
And families kept family business private. Public reputation mattered. Family secrets were never shared. Such information could be used against them. What might be revealed would only be revealed to family.
So to say “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” is something of a tautology, a truth everyone would recognize. What’s different is that Jesus is not speaking about Joseph. The thunderclap in this simple little aphorism is that Jesus is speaking about God and himself.
Jesus is the one with insider knowledge about God.
Everyone talks as if they know who God is and what God wants. It is a hubris of our time. Protesters at rallies for marriage or for life carry signs declaring God’s thoughts with absolute certainty. Clergy from liberal traditions wear their collars to union rallies to declare God’s support for some piece of legislation. We do not say “Thus and so seems best to us in light of what we read in scripture so far as we understand it, though others read it differently.” We say God is on this or that side. Even those who state categorically that there is no God are declaring what they cannot know.
The God of the scriptures is clothed in mystery. He appears at Sinai hidden in a cloud. He appears to Abraham in the form of a man. He appears to Moses in a burning bush. The prophet Isaiah says “Truly thou art a God who hidest theyself.” Ezekiel’s strange and compelling vision of God is not a vision of God, but a vision of “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.”
We should be much more cautious about what we claim we know. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.”
But then there is this sweet addition: “and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
The God who hides himself is revealed by the Son in the healing of the sick, in the feeding of the hungry, in the releasing of debts, in the raising of the dead, in acts of mercy and justice, in words and actions that call us to regard all people as members of our own clan – even the soldiers asserting Roman rule in the homeland of others.
The God who hides himself is revealed in the Son who welcomes outcasts and forgives sinners and washes his followers feet.
The God who hides himself is revealed in the Son who lays down his life and meets Mary at the tomb and sends his followers to all nations.
Jesus is the one with insider knowledge about God. He has chosen to reveal this much to us and not too much more. We should not be afraid to say what we know of the Son – just careful with what we think we know of God.
It is easy to get this wrong, but so important to get it right.