This noun, “Father,” flows so freely from the lips of praying Christians. Many of us use it extravagantly. We pray to “Father,” to “heavenly Father,” to “Father God” and some of us say it over and over again in the same prayer. We feel really comfortable, perhaps because we know that when the disciples asked, “Lord, teach us to pray,” his first words were, “Our Father...”
It might enrich us to appreciate how revolutionary Jesus was to propose such a thing. There are a few occasions in ancient Hebrew Scripture that support its use, but God as “Father” was never commonplace. Some have suggested that the Hebrews had avoided this metaphor for God because of its frequent use in the ancient Near East where it was used in various fertility religions and carried heavy sexual overtones.
In the entire Hebrew Bible, only 17 times is God mentioned as “Father,” whether of Israel, or of individuals, whereas in the Gospels of Jesus, alone, God is “Father” 165 times.
Jesus was always moved by compassion. Compassion motivated his entire life, including the occupation of culture and tradition. Compassion brought him to use the term “Father” all the time, and he knew it was subversive. He knew that when he talked about “the Father,” “my Father,” or “our Father,” that it threatened some their old ways, but it also had the power to transform people.
In reference to God as Father, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God.” (I don’t always quote the Vatican, but when I do, it’s because they are being inclusive, progressive and compassionate, if incrementally.)
In ancient Israel, the image of a God was, not so much “Father”, but God was seen as a warrior and also as a king. When Jesus says, “Father” he offsets those prevailing images —of warrior and king— with God who was for everyone. Instead of a deity who fought for our nation against theirs, and instead of a deity whose reign and dynasty was established within a single nation. Instead of a God, who as king, ruled over subjects who had little or no access to him, Jesus presents God as our Father.
This does not mean that Jesus saw God only as Father. He was simply starting a necessary conversation. He used words purposefully, but not dogmatically. It doesn’t appear that Jesus did or would use any terms exclusively for anyone or anything. The Holy Spirit is “Comforter” or “Counselor.” We identify Jesus as “Savior,” “Lord,” “King,” along with many other terms. he, himself preferred “Son of Man,” meaning “the human one,” or “the mortal.”
I am not sure what terms Jesus would use for God in our times, but I am sure he would not be married to terminology simply to accommodate the comfort of tradition or orthodoxy. Concepts like “Trinity,” and even the word “God” are important, but mostly as placeholders to help us open the door to the ultimate mystery, the great romance. Depending on nation and culture, there are many more names.
Religious hardliners see words and definitions as something to argue about whereas Jesus was attracted to acts of compassion and kindness.
David Moore is the author of “Making America Great Again: A Challenge to the Christian Community.”