“Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.” So begins the Lord’s Prayer as translated in the World English Bible. Referring to God as male is, of course, patriarchal and jarring to many people today. After all, God is neither male nor female. But, in the Judaea of Jesus’ time, in the context of that ancient culture, it was natural to do so.
“Householder” might be the best word to substitute for “father.” In certain circumstances, women might be the head of a Jewish family, and the gender neutrality of “householder” is less offensive to modern sensibilities. So, what, exactly did the ancient householder do? What was his or her responsibility vis-à-vis the family?
The answer? To see that everyone had enough—that spouse, children, and servants had enough food and clothing as well as adequate shelter. The animals owned by the family would be well-fed, the house itself would be in good repair, and the children would have love and affection. The whole familial enterprise had to be planned, and the plan had to be carried out under the benevolent direction of the householder.
So, instead of thinking of God as father, think of God as householder. Of course, God’s household is the entire world! Then ask, “Does everyone in the world have adequate food, clothing, and shelter? Are the world’s animal and plant species flourishing?
The answer? No. Many people do not have the necessities of life, animal and plant life is threatened, and even the world’s climate is deteriorating as we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. God would appear to be a poor provider for his earthly family.
However, God must complete his work with the help of human hands. Human beings must feed and clothe themselves. Human beings must be the stewards of God’s creation, protecting animal and plant life alike. When we pray to “Our Father,” we are committing ourselves to see that everyone in this world has “enough.” We are committing ourselves to social action, be it sharing the produce of our backyard garden or blocking access to a coal-fired electrical plant. In this way we keep God’s name holy.
And what is God’s name, anyway? It’s the symbol of his identity, one might say the identity itself—neither male, female, nor neuter. God is a supernatural “person” with no gender and near-infinite power. He has created us as instruments, as tools of his creative purpose. May his will be done.
(I’m aware that I’ve used the masculine possessive pronoun in referring to God. I also want to acknowledge that this post is based on John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Greatest Prayer.)
~ Richard Russell
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