Over lunch this week a good friend and parishioner reminded me of the call to teach others what we are learning about leadership and this vision of Christianity, which is both old and new. Frankly it doesn’t feel new right now, but there is a vision of pastoral and priestly ministry in the Anglican tradition that is emerging. I like to think of it as a reclaiming of that is really old, rather than something truly new, but it shocks some people to hear the implications.
No priest should be called father. I think it usually points to an unformed pastor or worse a system of anti-kingdom work. This sounds harsh, and I have good friends and people I respect who will argue for the pastoral merit of letting people respect your role and relationship to them. Fair enough. But there is no theological warrant in the New Testament for the title of “father” outside of Paul’s calling the people in several places a “little children” and stating that he was like a father to them. I think this should be held with Jesus’ direct command to “call no man father.” Why?
It is systemic thinking. The question to ask is “What kind of system are we setting up in order to embody and systematize the Rule of God in our local church or diocese?” Are we setting up systems that recreate the temple or empower the royal priesthood of the called/gathered? Ultimately we are trying to create and recreate systems that reflect the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and he had some particular things to say that speak directly to those systems.
The Gospel of Mark has a deep theme of suspicion towards “fathers” because “you have but one father, your Father in heaven.” It is important to ask why this suspicion was so prevalent. The analogy of “fathers” and “sons” was a social meta-narrative that presented social, political, economic, moral, and even religious norms to all participants. Roughly in every social interaction there was a “father” and a “son” or “sons.” A patron (root word pater) would be addressed as father by someone he supported and cared for, his “son.” This support and care while primarily financial would imply a great deal more about the ethics of the relationship, expectations, and norms of behavior. In actual father-son relations, these were true, but they extended far beyond. A father provided the ethos of the behaviors and expectations for the son in all interactions. Who you worked for determined how you were expected to act, behave, and even think. As with all social norms, this was probably true and also an incomplete picture. But we do see in Latin the remnants of the system in the words that remain in use even today. Everyone was a father or son in every relationship, but the supreme “father” was known and embodied in the emperor and his rule.
In several recent works of scholarship the relationship between Jesus and the imperial state of Rome has been lifted up as one of protest and threat. The emperor was proclaimed on coins and statuary as the Son of God. The God of Rome was immutable, unchangeable, and just. The emperor embodied that God’s rule on earth and was seen as either God’s emissary or God himself, often supported by claims of virginal birth. I would point to works by Herzog, Malina, Crossan, and Borg, but there are countless others who have explored the social and political world of Jesus in great depth. I owe a special debt to the works of N. T. Wright who works along the edges of these claims from the side of studying the claims of Jesus and Paul.
So if we believe as orthodox Christians in the claims of Jesus as the embodied Son of God who came to a particular place and time in history, and if we are going to take the claims of Jesus, the Bible, and the Creeds seriously, we have to look at them in the complex of their time and place in history with some care, at least as much as we are able to. This is commonly accepted in scholarship, but it can seem overly difficult for many lay people or less-learned pastors. I won’t claim to be more than a medium-learned pastor, but I am an avid reader who has been stuck on this issue of the meaning of the Rule, or kingdom, of God for a couple of decades.
So if there is a father-son system of ethics, rules, and expectations or norms in the first century, what does Jesus say to it? In some way Jesus co-opts the system in his teaching about God as Father, or Abba, and both his claim of sonship and what he makes possible for his followers. I would go farther to say that Jesus uses this social language to explain and embody his ethics, rules, and expectations. It should not be surprising that Jesus’ way of understanding should upset the accepted patterns of interaction, but how complete this system and its implications for our life as his disciples may surprise you.
First off, Jesus calls God “father.” This is well known and accepted. You should have heard sermons about this and you should be teaching it. It is simple and orthodox. Jesus also says that as God’s son, you can know who God is, what the ethics, rules, and expectations or norms of his kingdom-family are through Jesus himself. God is the one who provides the ethos, but we learn it from Jesus and later from his apostles and the Holy Spirit. We are not to call anyone else “rabbi” because we have one “rabbi” or teacher of the way of God, the Holy Spirit.
But there is a twist here that is again well-known, but still surprises many people: Jesus calls God Abba and not just Pater. Pater is directly translated from both Greek and later Latin as “father.” It represents a particular relationship-dynamic. It is a formal word, just as “father” is for most English speakers today. Abba is a little more subtle. It is an Aramaic word that gets brought into the New Testament a number of times directly. Aramaic is a local language that represents the mix of Arabic (geographically local) and Hebrew (religiously local). It is what Jesus and his first followers probably spoke at home. They probably used Greek in trading or when talking to non-locals, of which there were quite a few in even the rural places of Palestine and Israel of the time, due to Greek and Roman imperialism and trade and geographic centrality. That is a lot to explain that while the Gospels that we have were likely written in Greek, although I would argue that Mark was probably written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek. There are very few Aramaic words that come through untranslated. Abba does. Why? It represents a different way of relating that “father.” It is a primary language word, the language of infants and intimacy. Abba is more like “Daddy” in English.
The father-son relationship dynamic is one of formalism, obligations, and strict hierarchy. “Daddy” is intimacy, safety, provision, and care. Father is cool; daddy is warm. When Jesus refers to God as his father, he is pointing to rule, ethic, and expectation. When Jesus refers to God as daddy, he is pointing to love, relationship, and reciprocity. It is important to note that Jesus uses both terms. We should try to understand and live into the implications of both.
Father gives us a system of being and relationship. If God is to be a father to me, and I am to be God’s son, I have to know what God expects, what God’s rules are, and how I am supposed to act.
Jesus tells us all three of these. God is compassionate, knows you intimately and cares for human beings, especially the lost. God is concerned with mercy and forgiveness, embodied in healing and return. God provides for needs and is good. It is important to note that these are not the only attributes of God known or taught in Jesus’ day or in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus teaches these. He does not refer to the God of Armies or Hosts, a common phrase in both the Psalms and Isaiah which he quotes extensively. He does talk about God as just, but then locates that justice in the city gates with concern for the poor and widows. When he proclaims the Lord’s day from Isaiah 61 in his hometown, he edits the quote from Isaiah to leave out the wrath of the Lord and replace it with the “year of the Lord’s favor.” He then points out God’s concern for the foreigner is several stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. (See Luke 4).
Jesus gives specific rules that he connects directly to God’s attributes. The most obvious and often repeated example is forgiveness. As followers of Jesus we are to forgive as God forgives. We are to forgive seven times seventy-seven times, meaning an infinite amount. We are to be perfect in compassion. This verse has confounded and confused many people because of the word perfect, but it is connected to the teaching that God is compassionate and gives good gifts to his children.
7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
So Jesus has used the father-son relationship as a lens to show us how to relate to God and to each other. He also used it to directly counteract the systemic ethics and abuses of his day. He did this by showing that we are to relate to each other as God’s children. This implies treating each other (and others) with compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. We are to heal and feed others.
Jesus asks the crowd in Capernaum when his mother and brothers came seeking him, “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 4
Jesus warns against calling others “father.” He does this because of the role that fathers play in the systems of his day. Who your father is determines your way of being and relating. You are the son or daughter of the one whose will you do. I think the mistake of the church to adopt this model of relating again is that the model teaches dependency on who the father is. The called community ekklesia becomes the priest’s community as they become the one who sets the ethics and expectations and norms of the community around them.
This is precisely what Jesus was fighting against. God is Abba to his children. That is not dependent on the person who leads some part of the system. In fact, the leadership of Jesus’ disciples was to be one of servanthood, not privilege, to be one that embodied God’s rule basileo not the clergy. The leadership was to embody something even more than others because of the danger that we would become “father.”
The reality is that most communities are made up of humans, who we know are incomplete, non-divine, unholy creatures who have become so desperate over the centuries that if found the Tree of Life we would chew the bark off after selling the fruit for profit. We who are trying to lead know that we must take control of the systems of our communities if we are to change them. And control is exactly what “father” gives us. It is honor and privilege. It gives us our “due place” at the table. It is the damnation of the follower of Jesus.
I want to play nice, but I can’t. I know why we like the title. In Benedict’s rule the head of the monastery community is the “abbot.” Abbot is derivative to Abba. It encapsulates something that Benedict was trying to say about what was needed in his day. An order based on family obligations and even love. Abba, remember, implies love, care, and intimacy. It also implies one who gives identity and provision and place. I could find a place for “abbot,” I suppose. But Father is so dangerous, so counter to everything Jesus taught that I find it anathema. I join the Protest of Protestants and say no.
Don’t call me father.
Rather, I am learning to lead by serving the community with love, care, and yes even intimacy. I think the only way to find our “due place” at God’s table is to stand at the side with a towel and tray, ready to forgive, offer mercy, and heal and feed. I would rather be a butler in heaven than face the smoky future of false fathers.
Oddly, in my slightly obsessive compulsive exegesis “mother” stands up as safe. Funny.