"Our Father" is a wonderful, warm and loving way to address God, yet we must be mindful of what that term signifies — to us and to others. Do we mean what we say, and say what we mean?
Jesus said, "Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
Our Father, who art in heaven…
~ the way the Lord taught his disciples to call upon God
We don’t know much about Joseph of Bethlehem, who is one of the truly unsung heroes of the Gospel story. The information we have is limited to a couple of paragraphs in Matthew and a few comments in Luke.
We are told that Joseph's family claimed descent from King David; that he was an ethical, faithful, and compassionate man; that he worked as a carpenter. He lived in Nazareth and on at least one occasion made a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
A man of prayer and discernment, Joseph obeyed the divine communiques which directed him to take Mary as his wife, and to lead his family to flee to the safety of Egypt when Herod unleashed his murderous rage.
Beyond this the texts are silent. Tradition depicts Joseph as an old man when Jesus was born, the father of several children from a previous wife, and claims that Mary was widowed early, but we do not know for certain.
Joseph remains a man of mystery.
Despite the limited source material, I believe that we can make some educated guesses about the man’s nature. I think Joseph was good and kind and generous. I think he was patient, merciful, forgiving and — above all else — loving.
I think the conduct of Jesus’ earthly father made it easy for him to describe God as his heavenly Father.
Experiencing Joseph’s loving and compassionate fatherhood shaped Jesus’ understanding and language; for him, the lower was a representation of what was Above. This fact was enshrined in the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask “our Father” to keep us safe and sound.
Joseph was surely a blessing for the Lord, just as countless others have been blessed by fathers who have been equally kind and good. Unfortunately, though, the conflation of God/father has brought its share of trouble, in the form of reverse theology.
Rather than beginning with God, many — laity and clergy alike — start with their own fathers and project back; imagining our heavenly Father to be a replica of their own earthly fathers: possessing the same attitudes, flaws and failings. Sadly, some of these men were less than sterling examples of paternal goodness. Thus we hear descriptions of a “punishing,” “relentless,” and “unforgiving” God; an inscrutable, all-powerful Being who raises some into heaven and throws others into hell — without concern or regret, and often arbitrarily.
This backward theology slanders God and distorts human nature. Men come to believe it represents true, holy fatherhood: as a male parent one must be fierce, punishing, unfeeling, aloof. When this happens everyone loses; parent and child alike are hurt, alone, lonely, separated from one another and from the love and compassion that is genuinely of God.
It becomes a vicious cycle: abusive, fear-driven parenting perpetuates an abusive, fear-driven theology which perpetuates abusive, fear-driven parenting. For many victims, the only reasonable escape is to get away from God. Healthy, loving fathers will do all they can to keep their children far from such harm. It’s a large part of the reason we see so much loathing and condemnation directed toward our faith: that theology and that kind of conduct is understood to be “Christianity.”
As followers of the Lord Christ, our theology must always begin with the Gospel; that age old and often-mocked question: What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say? How would Jesus expect us to behave? If Jesus were your child, how would you treat Him?
Our Lord, the teacher we follow, insisted that we are to strive to be as perfect as our heavenly Father (Mt 5:48), treating each other with compassion, grace, and love. He also told a particularly memorable parable about a father and his two sons, which all parents should hold in our hearts and minds.
Jesus also talked a lot about stewards; telling stories about those who had been given the responsibility to care for their Master’s valuable estate. Parenthood is very much like that: those who are called to be stewards of the children God sends to our family.
This brings us to the bigger picture: the “family” we’re a part of. If God is our Father, then our family is far greater than those we’re related to by marriage or birth. It calls into question our proclivity to taking sides, our temptation to exclude, to shun, to shut out. If God is our Father, then who is our brother? (See Luke 10:25-37)
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
What does it mean, in tangible, concrete ways, to be a good father?
Give thanks for those who have been good fathers; pray for those who, for whatever reason, have not.