Thursday, June 18, 2009
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
This coming Sunday our country will celebrate Father’s Day. While many may see this day as just another Hallmark holiday to boost retail sales of ties, golf shirts, and beer mugs I want to use this blog to talk about a time when the word Father was used in such a revolutionary way that our world has never since recovered—a moment when the plans of God exploded onto the scene in just two words—Our Father.
When Jesus came on the scene, he spoke of God, not as some distant and capricious deity, but as his father. Jesus talked as if he had a special relationship with God, as if he were his own son, as if they were actually related. These were no doubt radical ideas in a world where there were so many diverse and ambivalent views concerning divinity.
While the Jews of that time thought of God as holy, powerful, and righteous, they also thought of him as distant; a distance which could only be bridged by the strict observance of religious rituals and traditions. The Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, had gods for everything you could imagine (and then some things that you can’t even imagine!). Divinity for the Greeks and Romans was superstition-on-steroids! The gods were seen as beings that must be appeased to curry favor for whatever endeavors in which one might be involved. So when it came to the divine life, matters were very insecure because one never knew if he had sacrificed enough or appeased all the deities that needed appeasing for the desired results.
It was in this climate that Jesus taught his disciples about prayer and where he let them in on the outrageous and extraordinary plans of God. Not only was God his father, he was inviting people, ordinary people of every variety, into his very family. Do you realize how utterly subversive and liberating the words Our Father were? They threatened the very foundations of all religions in the world at that time and they offered a way to God that for the first time was based not on human initiative or human performance but on God initiative.
Our Father is the foundation of Christian prayer. It is the context in which we pray. We don’t pray as outsiders or foreigners trying to gain the attention of a distant deity or as people alienated and estranged from divine life but as family members. Because of who Jesus is and what he did, we are in! We don’t have to appease God with our sacrifices or religious traditions. We don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops to gain his approval. It was offered to us when we weren’t even asking for it. It was offered to us when we had nothing to offer in return… when we weren’t good enough, religious enough, or smart enough to get there on our own. Our separation from God is over, and any apparent barriers are just illusions.
The very word father has been so devalued in our culture in recent years and for good reason. For many the word father speaks not of love, courage and strength but of emotional distance, of failed expectations, of never being good enough, or even worse of absence, neglect and abuse. However, Jesus shows us a different kind of father, a father who loves unconditionally, who initiates relationship, who is not emotionally distant, or waiting for us to get it together enough before he will accept us, but who has instead pursued us to the depths of our pain, fear, shame and estrangement and paid the ultimate price so that we could become a part of his family. This is so hard for us to get, isn’t it?
But what if we really believed this?
How would it change our lives?
What type of people might we become?