February 29, 2012


“Our Father”

Luke 11:1-4, Matthew 6:9-13


After Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental treatise “Summa Theologica,”  He said that he “had not yet come to understand ‘God the Father.’” When Luther’s barber asked for help in prayer, Luther wrote him a long letter in response. He said, “I regard it (the Lord’s Prayer) as the best of prayers — superior even to the Psalter, which I am very fond of. Indeed, it turns out that it was composed and taught by the real Master. What a pity it is that such a prayer by such a Master should be babbled and gabbled so thoughtlessly throughout the world.” Luther called the Lord’s Prayer “the greatest martyr, for everybody tortures and abuses it.” He encouraged his barber to use it as a model, saying one phrase at a time, then allowing the Spirit to help him fill in the rest.


If the Church, like the disciples, said “Lord, teach us to pray,” they would likely receive the same answer as the barber and the apostles: the Lord’s Prayer. It really isn’t the Lord’s prayer — it is ours. (He didn’t pray “Our Father,” because He was the unique Son of God. And He certainly did not need to be forgiven of anything.) May we use it for the purpose it was given — to teach us how to pray.


This particular segment of the prayer is a problem for some people, and so I want to be sensitive to that.  It is the word, Father.  Now, everyone has a father.  You may not have known your father, he may have died in your infancy.  But everyone has a father, and in some cases that is the problem.   If, without introducing this prayer at all, if I was in street clothes at a bus stop in Philly and surveyed those gathered there, “What comes to mind when I say, ‘Father?’”  There would be some memories shared of kindness and a steady guiding presence.  For others there would be little other than pain. 


For others, there is the whole patriarchy thing.  When I was in seminary there was a raging war going on over gender specific language.  Father, Son, all that stuff was (and is I suppose) problematical for some people.


I do not know an easy way around  this problem, except to say that the whole of the phrase is “Our Father in Heaven.”  This divine parent is far beyond any earthly parent.  Our feeble attempts at parenting pale by comparison.  This title refers to God as the life-giver, the One with infinite power and charity above any worldly comparison.  It is intimate, to the extent that any good father would care about children who were dependent upon him.  To address God in this way is to speak of family.  It re-affirms this idea that we all are God’s children, adopted perhaps, but children none-the-less.


But in its setting, Jesus is doing something radical.  To a people who were unaccustomed to even speaking God’s name without removing vowels, Jesus begins a prayer by saying, “Our Father.”  What he is trying to do is to put this prayer off on the right foot by orienting the pray-ers in the right direction:  This is your prayer, you are God’s children, you are people of the promise, you are, as Tom Wright says, “liberty people.”


This phrase also reminds us that Jesus is not developing some new spirituality.  It is tied to the prophets and to the Exodus.  Actually, Jesus is not the first Jew to refer to God as Father.  The radicalness of this prayer begins in these first two words.  We are God’s children and we are praying that ‘Our Father’ will bring us out of every kind of bondage and into God’s kingdom.


Talking about God using this noun speaks of a certain lineage, to be sure.  More than that, however, speaking of God in this way implies a certain connection beyond the expected family tree.  There is a presumed love, a perfect love, that is not quite describable by insisting that it is analogous to anyone’s earthly father.  Jesus used the Aramaic term “Abba” for good reason.  It is closer to our terms, ‘pop-pop’ or ‘daddy’ or any other ways we might recognize a mutual fondness, of personal intimacy.


Yet this simple beginning is not only about a personal intimacy with God.  It is that, of course, but it is also about God’s mission with and through His people.


The setting of the beginning of this prayer is not any different today from when Jesus was teaching the disciples how to pray.  He taught them this structure, using words that for them would bring forth ancient promises.  He understood that this prayer was not a way for us to be transported from the daily struggles we face but in full recognition of them; and, in addressing God this way, we are offering up these petitions to one who can make a difference.