Sunday, 29 July 2007

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer is shorter than the more familiar version found in Matthew's gospel. Even though short, all the essential elements of the longer version are present in Luke’s version. The prayer addresses God as "Father".

Today it is good to reflect on why we call God our Father and what it concretely means for us? Before we enter this reflexion it is good to ask if it is still relevant to call God father. Some [actually many] critics say that to call God father is to continue to subject women to sexism or sexist discrimination because it would allow males to regard themselves as godlike in ways females cannot. It is argued that we should “de-genderise” God by using more gender-neutral terms such as Creator, Redeemer or Sanctifier—in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. [That way, we get rid of the “Father” and the “Son”, both “en-gendered” terms]. One of the reasons why the new translation of the Roman Missal is still having some problems is because of the concern over the use of “non-gender-neutral” language.

But consider this, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II makes the comment that original sin, above all, is an attempt “to abolish fatherhood”. As a consequence, this attempt to abolish fatherhood creates the impression that God is not a loving father and it also provides the impetus/drive “to do battle against God”. If man does not perceive God as a loving father, he perceives him as a tyrant and hence rebels against him as a slave would against the master who kept him enslaved. Interestingly, the Pope pointed out that significantly in Scripture, we find the references to the fatherhood of God that are made through the images of motherhood. For example: Isaiah 49. Will a mother forget her baby? Even if she were to forget, I shall not forget you for I have carved you on the palm of my hand [1].

So, in summary, there is more than meets the eye in calling God Father because a civilisation that expects men to nurture their offspring must also be one that recognises the fatherhood of God. Jesus in asking us to call God our Father is proposing His Father to be the model for human fatherhood. I shall give three reasons why calling God Father is important for the well-being of the human race. Let me note that none of the reasons draws our attention to the superiority of being “male” or the superiority of being a man. [On the contrary, the reasons only reveal or expose the weakness or frailty of men].

Firstly, in both Jewish and Christian tradition, God has always been understood as the “helper of the fatherless”. [Ps 10]. Experience shows that men abandon their children more easily than women do. Social problems such as juvenile delinquency often are the result of fatherlessness. In such situations, God can be relied upon to be Father to the fatherless. So, for children whose earthly fathers are too frail and broken, there can still be the knowledge of a personal Father whose love is constant and unfailing, a Father who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, great in goodness and faithfulness”. [Is that not why we say that uncles in an extended family often act as surrogate fathers? Today we no longer have extended families. It follows that all the more we need a loving Father to stand in for the failure of human fatherhood]. This brings me to the second point.

The connexion between the fatherhood of God and human fatherhood concerns the teleology (or the goal) of fatherhood, in other words, the “goal” of adulthood. In order for a boy to grow into a good man and become a good father, it is important for the boy and society to know what the end product is to be like. If we don’t know what we want, then we can never have a standard to measure up to. The idea of the fatherhood of God provides us an image of how fathers are supposed to be like. In the absence of the knowledge of that reality, we become lost. Why? Because fatherhood more than motherhood is largely a matter of cultural devising. What I mean is that… women become mothers as soon as they become pregnant. Men who become fathers do not undergo biological changes in them to say that “I am a father” except through social convention. For example, marriage [a social convention] gives men a place to stand in society. Thus, men who do not know the ultimate source of their fatherhood—men who, in short, do not know their Father in heaven—are especially vulnerable towards paternal abandonment and sexual irresponsibility. [that is fathering children without a sense of responsibility for them]. We are taught to call God Father does not mean that fathers are more important than mothers nor fathers more superior to mothers. The reality is that fatherhood is far weaker and more fragile than motherhood. Men need more reminding from God than mothers do… Calling God “Father” is just such a reminder.

Thirdly, the link between human and divine fatherhood concerns the realistic possibility of male submission. Every society has to deal with the task of the socialisation of the male. [It explains why there are rites of initiation for a boy to become a man]. This socialisation is largely to channel male aggression away from violence and toward pro-social purposes especially generativity—that is, the ability to give life through the process of reproduction. In Judaism and Christianity, men are taught to understand male strength is synonymous with male servant-hood and self-sacrifice. The more powerful you are, the more you OUGHT to be a servant which was why Jesus said—he who wants to be leader must be servant of all. This process of socialisation that is, of sublimating strength to servitude, is dependent upon submission: voluntary obedience of the male to a greater power, a higher authority. This submission cannot be to other men because if it were so, then it is reduced to a question of my strength versus your strength… if might is truth, that is, if because I am stronger means that I am truer—then civilisation has descended to barbarism. There cannot be dialogue of life or of truth because the more powerful will dictate the terms of dialogue, if it can be termed as such. The alternative to this test of strength cannot be that men submit to women because in general, women cannot compel men to obedience [2]. The exception is only God who can cause males to fall upon their knees in voluntary submission. If you like, God the Father can teach adult males to act as his obedient sons and therefore, good husbands to their wives and good fathers to their children.

The word Father is not a word of oppression but rather it is a word for freedom. In a child, the word Father suggests to a child both strength and love. In God the Father, we find this to be true which is why we profess, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth”—God’s strength is to create in love. Contrary to our experience of "might is right", God’s power or strength is rather at the service of his creative love. Thus, calling God as Father is not about superiority of men over women. It has to do a lot with the health of society, the well-being of families. If men fear God, meaning that if they are truly and rightly reverential before God, then fatherhood will be strengthened and families will flourish.
[1] Here itself, you realise that God is never referred to as “mother” because if God were referred to as mother, then the phrasing would not be “even if a mother were to forget, I shall not forget you”. The reason for this phraseology is because mothers are expected NEVER to forget their offspring. In Judaism, God alone, amongst the religions of the Mediterranean Basin, is always referred to as “Father”. Therefore, God is Father who has mother-like characteristics….
[2] Except through so-called sex and this is borne out by what we hear of as “womanly wiles” meaning that sex is often used as a tool to subjugate men. Men and women are unequal in strength and that is why women must use womanly guile to subjugate men. How many great men [especially statemen] have in fact fallen through the lure of sex; to find their position of authority compromised by their adulterous affairs?

Have you seen the Digi advert in the cinema? I like it because it’s very Indian drama. This young man wants to marry this girl which his mother is opposed to. But, he is defiant and so you have this series of SMSes between mother and son. When he insisted, the mother finally broke the news: She’s your sister. The young man showed the SMS to his girlfriend and instinctively pulls his hand away from his sister (presumably half sister). It’s funny but it is not. I used to live in a suburb of 20000 people—maybe 18000 so-called Catholics but only 3% attend mass. Now, it was not uncommon to find a woman who had children from say 2 or 3 different men. The laws were such that they favoured the woman. Regrettably, in the past, women were greatly disadvantaged. So, now the laws wanted to make right past injustice. But they did it in a way which disadvantaged men or deprived men of their rights. It’s almost like “now you pay for the sins of your ancestors”. The problem is that not just the “fathers” pay, the children too… because 30 years down the line… one can never tell if one is in love with one’s half brother or half sister. The point here is motherhood is biological. Fatherhood is sociological. It is up to society to accord father a place in society. If laws act against fatherhood, there is a price to be paid. And the ones who pay most are the children and subsequently society at large. Why so many shootings in America? A reason is because a large part of the American experience is fatherlessness… there is no “fatherhood” to help in the socialisation process from violence to servitude.