The Greek for Lord, kurios, can also mean as little as Sir, but has special significance as applied to Jesus:
1. In relation to the disciples of a Rabbi it means Master, that is, a teacher with complete authority, as over slaves.
2. Because it was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to translate Adonai, which was the pious substitute for the unspeakable name of God, it carried theological implications about Jesus, uniting him with God.
In relation to 1, I have asked if the master/ slave relation is appropriate to Jesus and his followers, then and now. Jesus seems to have had no problems with that relationship, using it as a metaphor for the obedience owed to God. Slaves abound in the parables of Jesus, being diligent, lazy, trustworthy or otherwise, and their duty to their master is never questioned. Of course you can argue that he was talking about God, and that his attitude to the societal institution may have been different. My guess is that he saw it as fact, limited by biblical law, which in his estimation may have included the Jubilee legislation of Leviticus 25 providing for the freeing of slaves every 50th year. Radical as that was, it still left a lot of room for slavery. Jesus’ disciples however were free men and women, who nevertheless passed on the very teachings which demanded complete obedience and used the language of master and slave. Since that would normally have been unacceptable to them, I have to reckon that his relationship with them made it not only acceptable but necessary: they wanted to call him Master. The term carries the weight of something strange and primal from the experience of Jesus’ first disciples.
2. That experience was then interpreted by the use of kurios as signifying God. Although no formal identification of Jesus with God need have been intended at first, this language included Jesus in the sphere of God, as our Lord, and therefore as the referent of that language in Scripture. It was OK for Jesus to have bossed people around since he was standing in for God.
I can see how this title was creative in the early church’s thinking about Jesus, but do I accept it for myself, that Jesus demands my absolute obedience? In any other relationship I would reject such a demand, but in this, since the devotion of my heart has made him God for me, it can seem logical and right.
Then I remember that I do not believe in a God of absolute command, but in one who persuades. I also think that absolute power is the essence of evil, no matter who exercises it. But the master/slave material in the Gospels is so pervasive and deeply rooted in the traditions about Jesus, that it cannot be simply dismissed as spurious. I have not solved this dilemma, although I consider that a solution may lie in seeing this metaphor as part of the Jewish wisdom tradition to which Jesus belonged. Perhaps the apparently absolute commands should be interpreted as being preceded by “The wise person will…..” “The wise person will love her enemies; the wise person will bless those who curse her.” That would allow me to see the commands as a form of persuasion and the master/slave language as a metaphor for the urgency of Jesus’ persuasion.
This is not an unimportant issue. Everything I detest about religion hangs on the issue of absolute authority demanding complete obedience: suicidal jihadism, hatred of homosexuals, superiority of males, child abuse by clergy, denial of scientific fact, obedience as opposed to virtue- all these are the fruit of absolute authority. So serious is this issue that I must question my own desire to offer Jesus unconditional obedience as a sick piece of piety, relieving me of responsibility for my own actions, while allowing me a sneaky share in the omnipotence of Jesus.
Jesus is not my Lord; he is my teacher, my brother, my rescuer.