Jesus teaches that prayer can begin in an extraordinary way, by calling God – Father. It sounds so formal when we pray, “Our Father.” It reminds us of the Big Guy with a beard in the sky – One we should not only respect, but approach with fear and trembling. Yet there is a radical message here we often forget. The people of the Bible had
such a deep a respect for God that the words “the Lord” were often substituted as to not misspeak God’s name. God was knowable, yet a mystery, but always in charge: the Lord.
Jesus changed the way we address God by changing our language for God. Jesus’ claim is that God is not so foreign to our lives – not a far off distant God or as an adversary in the sky with lightning bolts ready to strike us down in our disobedience. Jesus depicts God from the perspective of a family – that we are part of and one where we have a seat at the table. We know God, and God knows us. That doesn’t mean we should be careless around God or disrespectful – we should still respect and obey – as we would any good parent. Yet this perspective of fatherhood shows us that when we are reprimanded or even punished for our wrongdoing, we are still sitting on the Father’s lap as he forgives, and teaches us something about ourselves and life within his family. Being a father myself I know that when my kids get disciplined our time together does not end with abandonment, even though sometimes there are a few tears, but often that time of redirection ends with hugs and giggles. Jesus is trying to show us that side of God too. When I come home and they greet me with hugs and love and stories from their day, that is the Father Jesus wants to reveal to us – a Father who has his children hanging off him, far before setting down his papers and loosening his tie, ready to listen.
There are three words for “Father” in the New Testament. One is Abba – which can loosely be translated “Daddy” or “Papa” or “Pop” or any other affectionate name kids use with their fathers. Jesus uses it only once. While praying in the garden before his arrest, he said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). We can see not only Jesus’ vulnerability at that hour, but also how close he was to his Father, asking if there was any other way than the cross. Another word for father in English is the same word that gets translated as Genesis; Nativity or Genealogy. In Matthew when Jesus’ lineage is established, this word is used 45 times like this: “Abraham was the father of Isaac” (Matthew 1:2), and so on. But the word Pater (Father) gets used 413 times in the New Testament (281 times in the Gospels). Of those the top three uses by Jesus are to describe human fathers (153 times); God the Father (42 times); and my/our Father (33 times). My kids call me Papa. I’ll never forget our son coming home from preschool crying saying, “I don’t have a daddy.” My response was, “I AM YOUR FATHER!” Words do matter after all.
In our ever-evolving language it has become passé to refer to God as male as more and more people have gained greater equality and opportunity within our world and the life of the church. As English lacks a good third person pronoun to replace he (other than “it”, and I don’t want to call God “it”), we tend to just replace pronouns with the word: God. So
we have clunky sentences like: God calls God’s people into God’s mission in God’s world for God’s sake. Huh? People have told very real, very painful stories about abuse or neglect among their earthly fathers or male figures of authority and the image of God as Father being a very difficult one to overcome. I’m sensitive to these challenges, but also think at the same time it recreates a distant and unknowable God, one we can’t relate to, and one that is defined more on our terms than the one Jesus uses – Father.
When we pray “Our Father” we are not addressing some incomprehensible deity or a generic parental unit – we are addressing a deeply knowable God, one who sent his son into the world to show us the way to him; a loving Father that wants us to sit on his lap and tug on his ears. Jesus tells a parable of a father, the prodigal son and his brother who
stayed home (Luke 15) giving us such a brilliant picture of God as a Father. When we run away the Father stands by the side of the road looking for us; while we remain we are called to enjoy his gifts and the work we’ve been given by his side. Both places are full of love and teaching moments. Neither son is sent away, even when they break their father’s heart. Neither are we. I can pray to a Father like that. Jesus invites us all to pray that way. Keeping that image in mind, maybe more of our prayers can end in giggles rather than tears, as our Father holds hands with us to show us the way.
What does it mean for you to pray to God as…Father?
“Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6)
Martin Luther’s Small Catechism:
“Our Father, who art in Heaven”
What does this mean?
With these words God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.