Our Father - Chip Roughton

Chip Roughton
October 13, 2013

One of the things you’re bound to find out about me as we spend this year together is that I
really like movies. All kinds of movies, all different genres and one of my favorites is actually a horror movie, The Shining. If you don't know it, it's about a writer and his family who take care of a huge, spooky hotel in the off-season. But the isolation—or maybe supernatural forces—get the best of him and he slowly loses his mind. It's a horror movie, but it's not your typical horror movie—it's not cut and dried. There's a lot of room for interpretation.


And so a group of really obsessed fans have taken it upon themselves to develop extremely complex theories about the movie and what director Stanley Kubrick was really trying to say. They've gone through the film, frame by frame, line by line, trying to get at some meaning that's hidden from the casual viewer. These guys (and yeah, they're all guys) they've watched the movie hundreds of times and have come up with some amazing interpretations. One guy says the movie is an indictment of our country's genocide of the Native Americans. Another says it's about the Nazis. My favorite critic believes the entire movie is Kubrick's secret confession that the Apollo 11 moon landing was a hoax and that he filmed it on a soundstage for the government.

Now admittedly, The Shining is a complex film, but I have to point out that none of these
readings have ANYTHING to do with what's happening onscreen. (It's completely ridiculous.)
They say the clues are all there—in the clothes characters wear, rug patterns, background props.
But even though their interpretations seem like a stretch to me, maybe even a little kooky, they don't take away from my enjoyment of the movie. In fact, I love people who get obsessed with some esoteric topic or pursuit and then spend all their time taking it apart, studying it, trying to understand it. I think I love them because they're so dedicated that they get a little unbalanced: It's all they do. All they think about. All they talk about. And that makes them seem just a little bit off. Kind of like the people I encounter at divinity school: Extremely focused, very bright, but maybe a little too obsessed for their own good. So you can imagine how excited I was when I first heard about the fellows of the “Jesus Seminar.”


If you haven't heard of it, the Jesus Seminar was a group of biblical scholars, clergy and laity,
who spent years trying to nail down exactly what Jesus actually said and did. They went through the gospels, line by line, examining, re-translating, debating and ultimately voting on every single
statement and act of Jesus. To me, you'd have to be a little crazy to do that—but that's why I love
them. I love that they poured over every detail, scrutinizing, trying to determine what was true and
what wasn't. Of course at the end of the day, it basically came down to what each person believed - their opinion. “Does this sound like the real Jesus?” they asked.


Whether their project was pointless or not, I'm fascinated by it. And one of my favorite rulings
of theirs was on the Lord's Prayer. According to the Jesus Seminar, there is only one part of the Lord's Prayer they felt for certain could be attributed to the historical Jesus. These people, the foremost religious scholars of the day, decided that only one part of the prayer actually came from the mouth of Jesus: “Our Father.” That was it. Everything else: Sorry. Not Jesus. It was added later, they say.


Now wherever you fall on the literal/figurative scale of biblical interpretation, I think it's
interesting to examine this prayer in light of the scholars' ruling. Because really, “Our Father” on its
own, is mind-blowing. But to get a better idea of how and why that is, we need to understand what
Father meant in the time of Jesus.


In the Palestine that Jesus was born into, Father was much more than a biological identification.
Father meant master and lord. It meant Authority. The king was called the father of the nation. Wise men, prophets, royal counselors, priests – they were all called Father. And of course in the regular sense, the Father was the head of the household. And beyond that, the head of the clan, and the tribe, and of generations.


Now obviously, we still live in a patriarchal society—and by the grace of God, we pray and
work for that to change. But the oppression of patriarchy today is Nothing, NOTHING, like it was
back then. Fathers—all the different varieties—ruled the world. Your father determined your lineage and your lineage determined Everything. Everywhere you went, you were identified as “Son of...” or “Daughter of...” And the farther back you could trace your lineage the better.
Here in the states, we're impressed when people say their relatives came over on the Mayflower.
I love to think of that person at a cocktail party trying to one-up a biblical character.
“Of course, we were one of the first families in the New World...”
“Hmm, not bad. Ever hear of Adam? The first human being? Yeah, I'm still wearing his hand-medowns. You were saying...”


This game of who was more worthy was played out every day in a thousand little ways, and it
was all based on your father. Your lineage established your social status, how you would be treated. It determined what you wore, who you could speak to, who you could marry, who you could eat with (and even who took the first bite). It actually dictated where you should fix your gaze when you met someone. This was a culture based on Honor and Shame and your entire worth was based on who your father was.


Now before Jesus came along, some people did refer to God as Father, But it was this
enormous concept of Father with all the baggage that stood behind that name. Father as ruler, Father as power, Father as absolute Lord. The impersonal Father that means tyrant-king as much as it means ancestor. But when Jesus calls God Father, he seems to mean something else entirely.


Much has been made of the term “Abba,” the word Jesus used for Father. People have said it's
Aramaic for “Daddy,” giving us a very tender, childlike image of Jesus and his understanding of God. But most scholars refute that translation. It's not that it's not “Daddy,” or a little child's word for Father, it's just that it seems to mean more. There's intimacy as well as respect in the word. Adult children as well as toddlers might use Abba—but only to address their actual biological father. You'd never say, that monarch – Abba, or that high priest—Abba. From what I can tell, no one knows exactly how to translate “Abba.” They just recognize that it was a special name.


Whatever the word means, by using it, Jesus completely shattered people's notions of who God
was in relationship to themselves. This is one of the reasons people wanted him dead.
His understanding of his special relationship with God was DEVASTATING to the official mediators
of God. His notion of who God was threatened to put them out of a job! And this was not just one,
lone crazy person talking nonsense about God. No. Because when Jesus calls God, Abba-Father, My Father, Our Father, he invites his followers to share in the same relationship he has with God. Did you get that?! We're told to approach God as daughters, as sons. Not as dutiful slaves or even distant relatives, but as brothers and sisters of Jesus. You are the Son of God. You are the Daughter of God. We hear it so often, it's become mundane. But this is a world-shattering understanding that will change your life if you let it sink in.


But the significance of Jesus' words doesn't end there. His notion of God as Father also
undermines the biological basis of family. Family – the most important thing you had. The primary
indication of your worth as a human being. He destroys it. “Who is my mother?,” He asks. “Who is
my brother?” Boom. The rules have changed. All those fathers of power in society, they aren't your fathers any more. There is only one Father and He is Ours.


I want you to imagine that you're living in the desert with your family. You're herders by
profession, but the herd has been dying and your neighbors have been dwindling, and you notice your parents have been skipping meals lately and your brothers are sick. Things look bad all around for your family. You're 15 and you're scared, but at least we have each other—we have the family—you think. And then one day your father comes to you and takes your hands in his. His palms are so rough and dry that when he squeezes, it hurts. You notice the tears pooling in his eyes, “Your mother and I...” he starts, but whatever he has to tell you, he just can't get it out. It's too painful. Instead he just hands you a sack. Inside is a coat and a few loaves of bread. He folds a coin into your palm. Through his tears he says, “I'm sorry. You have to go.”


This scene played out all the time in the ancient world. If you weren't the first or even second
son, chances are you were forced to strike out to try to make it on your own. If you were a daughter, you hoped to be married off or else you might be forced to move out too. Single adult children without an inheritance naturally drifted to the city, just like they do today. But in those days, your odds weren't good. According to scholar Richard Rohrbaugh, men without family or inheritance who moved to a strange city had a life expectancy of 18 months! For women, it was less than six months! That’s because in a strange place, among strangers, you are truly on your own. You aren't my family, my clan, my tribe – I can't help you. To be without a family was death sentence.


But after Jesus, in the days of the first churches, you had a second chance. Imagine now, you're
alone in this strange city. You’ve run out of food, you’ve spent your last coin, you are certain to die
and then suddenly, someone, a complete stranger, takes you in, calls you “brother,” or “sister,”
introduces you to a new family, your new family, a group that promises to love and care for you,
That is salvation! You are literally saved from death. You belong to a new family. And now you can
trace your lineage to God. You are born again.


Now, Paul says we're adopted into the family, that as Christians our status changes from slaves
to children. But with all due respect to Paul, I'd like to propose another way to look at this: I think we are born as children of God. Our parents on earth step-in as step-parents. They raise us up—or maybe they don't—but either way, they're really just Josephs. They're stand-ins for our true parent, our actual Father and Mother.


So we start out as God's children, pure, holy and connected. But our earthly parents, and nearly
everyone and everything else, convinces us otherwise. We get lost and confused and we forget who we truly are.


So many parents do everything they can to care for us, they sacrifice for our sake. But some
parents do more harm than good. Mothers abandon their sons. Fathers abuse their daughters. And now we're left with not only a case of mistaken identity, but a wound that may never heal and a violent distrust of authority, of parental figures. Imagine how that breaks God's heart, to see His children crushed and worn down. Not knowing the truth about our lineage, about where we come from.


And then, the church comes along and insists that God is another father. For many of us, the
language is too painful. I really appreciate the attempts by some to eliminate gender from our Godlanguage. Male and female (and everyone in between) are made in His Image, so we know that “His” is just a placeholder, a clumsy attempt to speak about the ineffable. As we talked about in Sunday school last week, the writers of the Bible use all sorts of surprising images and names to describe God. And so does Jesus. A mother hen, a song, a fountain, a nursing mother. But we tend to favor the notion of ‘Father’ over all the others. The problem is, some of us don't want another father, even a perfect father. We only want to be held and loved the way we were supposed to be, the way we knew we should have been from the start. 
When Jesus says Father he's not trying to exclude anyone. On the contrary, his use of Father suddenly includes everyone, despite who their earthly fathers are. This is salvation and freedom and life ever-lasting.

So back to the Jesus Seminar and their version of the Lord's Prayer: I'm not saying we should
dump the rest of the prayer or go through our bibles with sharpies, crossing out everything they've
nixed. Theirs are scholarly opinions, sure, but they're still only opinions. No one really knows what
words Jesus used. The gospel writers themselves don’t always agree. But however it was said and done, Jesus changed things. He came and shook us out of our amnesia. He made us remember something we'd long forgot: That our surname is God. And Our Father, Our True Father, waits at the gate ready to receive us the moment we turn around and head back to our one true home.