17th Sunday of the Year Reflection
The “Our Father”, is the prayer of 1,2 billion Catholics and a further 1 billion of other Christian denominations around the world, in every place, in every occasion; in times of celebration, in times of grief and in times of uncertainty.
Perhaps we may sometimes also forget that this prayer is said in virtually every language on this earth and that 70% of Catholics are not English-speaking. All of these languages are continually developing and changing. As we grow older, these developments and changes can be quite disorientating and even frightening, and we, therefore, tend to buck against changes. That is why the change made by Pope Francis to the phrase “lead us not into temptation” to “do not let us fall into temptation”, has had such varied and even uncharitable reactions.
Jesus, however, did not speak English neither did Jesus speak Latin in everyday use with his disciples; Latin was the language of the invaders; the language of their oppressors! The spoken language of the Jewish people that time and that area was Hebrew for Temple use, Galilean Aramaic for everyday use and to a lesser degree Greek as the commoner’s language of the Empire.
We all recognise the importance of language; words and symbols are important! Words and symbols can really get us riled up: especially when it comes to liturgical words and symbols, so intimate to our relationships; they can even become a burning obstacle to community unity and peace. Consider how we use this “Our Father” as a prayer of opposition between teams, families, churches and even nations; Our Father, lead us to victory over those others!
The word “our” is really rather demanding. It requires that we step out of the closed circle of our “I” and “mine”. It requires that I surrender myself to communion with the other children of God; the fellowship of the human race. This certainly calls on us to simplify our lives of the excess of desiring always “more”.
Without Community, there is no prayer
It requires that we strip ourselves of all that is merely our own, of all that divides and separates. To truly experience the presence of the Sacred in an-other and in creation will strip the shadows of their darkened fear and words so that the unity of the sacred dance may begin. It requires that I accept the other, all those others and that we open our ear and our heart to them. When we say the word “our”, we say “yes” to the living Church in which the Lord wanted to gather his new family. Can I in all truth accept this when all within us craves to be better than the next; to win and to be above and beyond the other?
Without the community, without others and without my neighbour, there is no prayer. When I am disdainful and turn away from my neighbour, my brother or my sister, I mock Jesus who gives to us that most intimate touch of his own Body and Blood. Jesus says to you and to me, “this is how much I love you; this is how much I want you to love each other; this is how you are to be my disciple.”
The Jews were noted for their devotion to prayer. Formal prayer was prescribed for three set times a day. And the rabbis had a prayer for every occasion. Jesus, however, warns his disciples against formalism, making prayer something mechanical and devoid of meaning, with little thought for God and our place in God’s kingdom.
Many years ago I went to collect my dear friend and mentor, the late Bishop Gerard Ndlovu. With me, in the motor vehicle, I had a few of my Bertram’s street children. As Bishop Gerard climbed into the motorcar, I admonished the children, “what do you say to the Bishop?” Their response was instantaneous, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he gave them the disciple’s prayer, what we call the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer”. This prayer calls God “Our Father” in accordance with Jewish custom, and boldly asks for the things we need to live as his sons and daughters, to live as a community; to live as God’s family.
God Made Male and Female “In His Own Image”
Scripture itself affirms what theology concludes; God, the ultimate source of all that is seen and unseen, is neither male nor female. Genesis tells us that God made us, “male and female God made us, in God’s own image”. Words and symbols are important and they have power! The Hebrew payers would have been directed in accordance with their understanding of God as male pro-generator and the female as a mere carrier; much like a “Checkers’ carrier bag”!
Words carry meaning and they have power, the power to unite or the power to separate! The word Abba translated as Father is not a word of endearment but rather a word of power and authority. It is the traditional term used in the Jewish Liturgy and prayers and was also used as a title of honour and dignity for Jewish Rabbis. The vice-president of the Jewish Sanhedrin held the title of “Av”, or Father of the Sanhedrin. In later periods the title was also applied to the bishops of the Coptic, Ethiopic, and Syrian churches and the word “abbot” and “abbess” is derived from this.
It’s more ancient roots in Egypt and Babylon relate to Ab as First Ancestor and the Aramaic Abwun as “Cosmic Birther”, from whom the “Breath of Life” emanates.
The authority of religious words and symbols hold have terrible inherent power. Scot McKnight, a professor of “New Testament Studies” points out that biased and wrongly translated non-gender words often become the norm, because those mistranslations are read over and over again. And usually, no thought is given to the divisive implications for the “Body of Christ”.
My language about God affects what I think about the holy, divine and creation. There is a correlation between my view and my language, each serves and supports the other. By calling God “Father,” I am saying that God is like a man, including the physical and emotional properties that coincide with this image, whether positive or negative. There are so many in our world today who carry the woundedness of a father’s authority and discipline.
Why Do We Make God So Small?
Are we perhaps hindering our understanding of all that God is by gendering and humanising the nature of God? To repeat the question of Carl Sagan, “Why do we make God so small?”
In much of the world, women live in the cruel and dehumanising bondage of men, to fathers and to husbands and even to sons; institutionalised oppression. Thus, when they come to the Bible and see gender biased verses, they figure the Scriptures are not for them. I have experienced among parishioners that when some women see the word “man” in Scripture, they often do not see themselves included therein. This is also true within many cultures, any idea of equal intrinsic human dignity between men and women, husbands and wives, sons and daughters is totally and explicitly rejected. How then as the one family of God can we pray for our…
The truth is, to use the word “man” in the Bible today is unnecessary and extremely misleading. The inspired reality of the translated Greek words would be best served with designations like “people, humans, men and women, persons, folks, and brothers and sisters.” In this way each will see themselves in that image of God as both male and female (Genesis 5:2). In order for Christ to be expressed in his fullness, the manifestation of the Spirit in each part of the “new humanity” must be living and active. As God’s people, we need to strive to become aware of any divisive bias that has influenced our thinking, so that together, we may have the “mind of Christ”, and be found standing upon the one unshakeable ground.
Thoughts matter and language matters; Perspective matters. They are the tools by which I approach reality. If God is a man, then “he” will take on the characteristics and actions of a man. This is essentially what the Hebrew Bible suggests. God reveals “himself” to Abraham, which is the beginning of a patriarchal order.
The God of fathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, becomes the Father God, solidifying the association as a significant part of the biblical narrative that even now shapes our human understanding of God. Genesis raises questions about the man-shaped box we have stuffed God into. God’s image and likeness are completely expressed in both male and female.
Watch Your Language
Understanding the importance of language, we must look for new ways to talk about God, away from the use of gender-specific terms and faith claims that separate, divide and dominate.
Each one of us is called to become more aware of the consequences of our words. As we seek new ways to describe God, to find more meaningful, inclusive language that breaks the chains of stale and divisive language and stereotypes. Changing the way we talk about God isn’t easy, but it will deepen the wells of our spiritual journey towards truly becoming a “people of God”. When I associate God with only male language, I focus on male-oriented action and neglect the feminine qualities of the Divine Presence: giving birth to creation, nurturing, the calm soothing that only a mother can bring.
Some Christians might think it is dangerous or ridiculous, but I find it necessary to refine my language and to seek understanding of God beyond traditional gender-specific roles. In the end, God cannot be limited by our human terms. Why would I continue to use language that not only sells short who God could be but limits the ways I can experience the divine?
We need to honestly examine our motives: Why would we want to continue to use language that conforms to the traditional patriarchal framework? As we pray, we need to seek new ways to talk to and about God. To find new ways to remain quiet, still, and creatively ready to drink deeply upon the Divine Presence and, then, to speak meaningfully; to transcend the language of human gender to a place of wonder and possibility. In doing so, we hope to find something new, exciting, refreshing, and real.
We are brothers and sisters with God as our common first ancestor. This has been renewed in Jesus the Christ who gives to us the communion with his very self to break down barriers between us and God as well as the barriers between ourselves.
Let ask the Lord to free your heart of any anger, fear, bitterness, resentment, selfishness, indifference, or coldness towards others.
Let us not wait for others to lead the way, a first little step is all that is required. Let the Holy Spirit, the Breath of Life, fill us with the fire of burning love and compassion and with the river of overflowing mercy and kindness. This is the hope of the church, it must begin with everyday life, so that when we come together as one, we will know that we are all in equal standing upon the one unshakeable ground of the Cosmic Christ.