There are folks in the world who struggle with the image of God as Father, in part because their own earthly father was not of a type that would be easily transferrable to the image of our loving God. Martin Luther himself had exactly this issue, in fact. Luther’s father, it is said, was so strict, and so harsh, that Luther came to understand God in just that way. Perhaps this is what accounts for the reports of Luther’s obsession with confession, wherein Luther was said to confess to his confessor for hours on end, often daily, trying to remember each and every failure, begging that God would not punish him for them.
I have known survivors of childhood physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their earthly fathers and have observed through their experience how difficult it can be to name God as “Father” and not have that communicate, perhaps on a deep psychological level, even subconsciously, that God is harsh, punishing, abusive, violent, unpredictable, dangerous, harmful.
Luther, thanks be to God, came to understand God in very different terms, largely through his own experience of parenthood, as he and Katie began having children and Luther experienced his own deep love for, and deep desire to provide nothing but the best for, his first-born son, Hans. Luther’s understanding of God, while deeply theological, was also deeply experiential.
With this in mind I think it’s important to note a significant difference between fatherhood in Jesus’ culture and our own modern culture.
The birth of Jillian, well over 22 years ago, changed my life forever, and those changes continue to play out as our relationship continues to develop and change, as she becomes more and more independent. This is the way it’s supposed to be, at least in our cultural understanding of the healthy parent/child relationship. A child is born, and the parents provide for that child, first, everything, because a newborn cannot provide for their own needs, but as time goes on, of course, that dynamic begins to change.
I remember reading a book to Jillian when she was little. I think it was called “I can do it myself!” In the story a young child begins the long and inevitable move from dependence to independence by dressing herself, learning to tie her own shoes, and things of that sort. “I can do it myself!” the child says, repeatedly.
The relationship changes as our children go to school, develop friendships and other relationships outside of the family, learn to drive, get their first jobs, perhaps go off to college, maybe get married, maybe decide to live farther away than you thought they would. It’s not always easy to let these sorts of natural processes unfold – to allow these changes in the parent/child dynamic morph over time, But this is how our culture expects such relationships to develop, though it’s certainly not been a universal understanding, and was not at all the understanding in Jesus’ culture.
We expect our children to grow, and to differentiate, and to separate themselves from our parental care more and more as they become independent individuals. But in Jesus’ day, the father of a household was responsible for providing sustenance, security, a legacy, status and honor for their household, not just as long as their children were minors, but for as long as the father lived. And to fail to provide such would bring dishonor upon the household in the eyes of the village and the culture at large.
(Richard P. Carlson, New Proclamation, Easter through Pentecost, 2004, Fortress Press, Copyright 2003)
With this in mind, rather than with our own modern American cultural image of fatherhood in mind, we gain a new and different insight into what it means that Jesus calls God, Father and teaches us to pray to God as such. Jesus, in other words, is teaching us that, should God not provide for us all those things I’ve just listed, God would bring dishonor upon God’s own self, and so, when the disciples come, asking Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus says begin by saying: “Father” the disciples would have understood that to mean more than we might assume. The disciples would have understood Jesus to be saying that, should God not answer our prayers, should God not usher in the reign of God, should God not provide what we need each day, our daily bread, should God not be merciful and forgiving, even as God calls us to be forgiving, should God not save us from the trials that inevitable come in each lifetime, then God would bring dishonor upon God’s own household. It’s a pretty radical idea, really, and he goes on then to use parables to further make the point that God can be trusted to fulfill God’s fatherly role in our lives
- A friend comes at midnight, asking for some bread to serve a visitor. What would we think of a neighbor who would deny such a request?
- A child asks for a fish. What would we think of a father who gives that child a snake instead?
- A child asks for an egg. What would we think of a father who gives that child a scorpion instead?
Such things would be unthinkable. They would bring dishonor upon anyone who would do such things, and in a culture completely built upon honor and shame, one would never do such things!
Then, in what we would call a pretty classic use of a Lutheran Law/Gospel paradigm, Jesus continues: If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask? If you, sinners that you are, know how to act honorably, and know how to provide for your children, then God will surely not withhold the greatest gift needed for sustenance in the lives of God’s children, the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, the very life of God which God will eventually pour forth at Pentecost.
So go ahead, ask! Search! Knock! God will give you what you need when you ask. You will find what you need when you seek. The door will be opened to any and all who knock. That’s the promise of God, based on God’s invitation to us to call God “Father”.