Though it is not, strictly speaking a religious holiday, Father's
Day gives us the opportunity to reflect upon a familiar theme
in our tradition. In fact, Jesus never spoke about the fatherhood
of God. He addressed God personally as Abba,
father; he chose the Aramaic word which implies something deeper,
more direct than is implied in our abstraction, "fatherhood."
In calling God his father, Jesus signified that we are created
individually in God's image. Our relationship with God is as close
and as direct as that between any parent and child. Just as I
know my own children personally, just as I feel they are bone
of my bone and flesh of my flesh, so Jesus gave new meaning to
the idea that God is our Father.
In this regard I believe that Jesus was speaking from
the depths of his personal experience. He was speaking as the first
born son of a carpenter from Nazareth,
and from the depth of that relationship. In order to see the true
meaning of what Jesus was saying, we need to explore his relationship
to Joseph, for it lies at the root and source of all that we believe.
In fact, we know very little about Joseph. The early
church took pains to suppress the memory of Christ's biological
father. We must read between the lines of the gospel and reconstruct
one of history's most important and interesting relationships. Though
he is depicted in early Christian art simply as the carpenter, we
remember that Scriptures identify Joseph as a descendant of the
great kings David and Solomon. With this tradition of royalty in
his blood, Joseph may have responded with real hope to Mary's dream
that their first born son would one day be the king of kings. And
he may have had reason to fear Herod's reaction to the news of the
baby born in Bethlehem. In any case, a few days after Jesus was
born, Joseph fled with his family hundreds of miles over the mountains
and deserts; he sought refuge from Herod's power, just as hundreds
and thousands of people are fleeing the terror in places like the
Middle East at this very hour.
Because it was not safe to return to their own land,
Joseph may have kept his family in Egypt for several years, raising
the young boy in what amounted to a refugee camp in a foreign land.
According to custom, it was Joseph's role to teach Jesus the mysteries
of the scripture, and tell him the legends of Israel's past. And
this he accomplished during their long sojourn in Egypt. Most importantly
Joseph spoke to his son about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As a child, Jesus would have learned about God from his parents
and he would have worked out his own understanding of God in the
context of their family relationships.
Once they returned to Nazareth, Joseph taught his
son the profession of a carpenter. In those days a carpenter was
a professional of high standing in the community. He was the chief
supplier of fuel for cooking and heating; he supplied parts for
farm equipment, hardwood for chests, softwood for baskets. The carpenter
was a planter of trees, responsible for maintaining the forests
so that people would have all the wood and lumber they needed in
future generations. And in that era, the carpenter was a builder
and an architect.
Joseph knew how to lay a foundation, design and erect
walls and ceilings for a one family house, or a larger public building.
The popular paintings of Joseph working with Jesus in the solitude
of the carpenter's shop are somewhat misleading, for as we have
seen, carpentry involved a great deal more: cutting and trimming
of trees in the forests, building measuring or making the calculations
as a modern engineer would do, managing the forests.
And Joseph introduced Jesus to this active and demanding
profession at an early age. Without doubt the lessons which Jesus
learned as his father's right hand influenced the young man's thinking.
With all this in view, it is remarkable that Joseph's
name is not even mentioned in the main narratives of the New Testament.
In the tradition of Christian piety we hear a great deal about Mary,
but Joseph remains a shadowy figure, at one remove from the real
In essence, the memory
of Joseph was sacrificed by the early church as a consequence
of its belief in the virgin birth.
Over a period of several hundred years, the church
fathers became committed to the view that Mary was not only a virgin
at the time of Christ's birth, but that she remained a virgin throughout
her life. Her marriage with Joseph was never consummated. This notion
was officially recognized as the doctrine of the perpetual virginity.
Unfortunately, having adopted this view, the church found itself
with the embarrassing problem of Joseph's other children, named
in the gospels as the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
In order to resolve this dilemma, the church taught
that Joseph was an old man at the time of his betrothal to Mary.
They said that his children were the offspring of a previous marriage.
One authority puts his age at 93 on his wedding day. When you imagine
a bridegroom 93 years of age, the doctrine of the virgin birth,
and the further doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, become more
plausible, to say the least. So the doctrine of the perpetual virginity
is defended, but as a result Joseph is effectively ushered off stage.
Legend holds that he died at the age of 111 when Jesus
was only 18 years of age. Meanwhile, as Joseph's role was diminished,
Mary was elevated to a place of honor and venerated as the Mother
I find that much of this fanciful footwork on the
part of the early church fathers is unfortunate and regrettable,
precisely because it obscures one important source of Christ's own
faith. Joseph's influence can be read between the lines of almost
everything that Jesus said or did.
For example, we are all familiar with the warning
of the Sermon on the Mount: "Why
do you see the speck that is in your neighbor's eye, but do not
notice the beam that is in your own eye?" The first part
of the image is clear. We can easily imagine the speck of sawdust
in the eye. Everyone of us has had the experience. But what does
Jesus mean when he refers to the log in your own eye?
Let's imagine the actual craft of the carpenter. When
they were engaged to build a house, Joseph and his son would go
out into the forest and cut down the largest tree they could find.
They would shape the log into a beam, and then they carried the
beam on their shoulders through the narrow streets of Nazareth.
Then along comes that curious busy body who walks the streets, peering
into his neighbor's windows. As he walks forward, looking over his
shoulder, he does not see the carpenters coming down the streets
toward him with their giant beam carried with such great momentum
at eye level... Suddenly, they collide! And curious George is thrown
flat on the ground.
"Why do you see
the speck that is in your neighbor's eye, but do not see the log
that is in your own eye?" There is an element of slapstick
comedy and satire in these words of Jesus.
As a young man Jesus was continually up and about,
constantly observing the real world of everyday life, alert to all
the shades and shadows of human experience. And later he would spin
these observations into stories and parables.
"Everyone who hears these words of mine and does
them will be like the wise man who built his house upon the rock,
and the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat
upon that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded
upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does
not do them will be like the foolish man who built his house upon
the sand, and the rain fell, and the flood came and the wind blew,
and beat against that house, and great was the fall of it."
This parable conveys the power of an observation made
at first hand by one who was himself a builder of houses. As a carpenter
and architect, Jesus knew that the consequences of his mistakes
could be devastating. Later, as a teacher and storyteller, he applied
these same lessons to the realm of the spirit.
Whenever Jesus wanted to express himself, he drew
from his experience at the right hand of Joseph. Jesus knew how
to use his observations of the world to interpret the mysteries
of God. And it is at this theological level that the father-son
relationship made its deepest impression.
As we have seen, Joseph probably died sometime between
Christ's twelfth birthday, when he was presented at the temple
in Jerusalem, and the beginning of his public ministry following
the baptism in the Jordan
River. Although we have no way of knowing the effect of Joseph's
death, it is plausible to assume that the young man was deeply moved.
Perhaps the loss of his own father contributed to his emphasis upon
the fatherhood of God. Remember how tenderly he spoke of God's love:
"What man of you, if his son asks him for a loaf
will give him a stone, or if he asks for a fish, will give him a
snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to
your children, how much more will your father who is in heaven give
good things to those who ask him?"
If Joseph had not provided such a strong example,
it is doubtful that Jesus could have imagined God as "Abba,"
father. If Joseph had not loved him so well, it is unlikely that
Jesus could have preached so powerfully about the love of God.
Yet there is another, darker side of the story as
well. In a very real sense, Jesus moved beyond the faith of his
father. His own perceptions were somewhat different. In fact, they
differed on such crucial points that had Joseph lived, there may
have developed a deep division between them.
Jesus was in some ways a dissenter from the religion
of his family. After he spoke as a prophet for the first time in
the temple of Nazareth, the people took offence at him. They did
not believe him. As a way of putting him down, they said: "Where
did this man get his wisdom and his mighty words? Is this not the
The implication being that Jesus could not have anything
new or unique to say to them because he had learned everything from
Joseph. He was a home town boy and his wisdom must be a home spun
wisdom. To this Jesus replied: "A prophet is not without honor,
except in his own country and in his own home."
Here Jesus hints darkly at the division that had opened
up between himself and the members of his own family. Ironically,
when Jesus insisted that God loves all people as deeply and as personally
as a father loves a son, he moved beyond the religion of his father.
His most profound contribution to our understanding was precisely
that God is not just the God of the Jew, or the Christian, or any
other people, chosen by reason of race or creed. God loves all creatures
with a love which is both deeply personal and individual. God is
the father of all, and in God's love all people are made equal.
This fundamental perception of Jesus, which owes so much to his
own father, is also the feature of his faith which would have been
unacceptable to his own family.
This is an irony which is part of the relationship
between every parent and child. Though we are all powerfully influenced
by our own parents, and share their views and values, we are also
unique and must therefore find our own way. While knowledge of God
is literally impossible without the love and nurture which our parents
have provided, nevertheless, we cannot develop spiritually unless
we understand God on our own terms and in our own way. So we are
continually torn between the commandment to love honor and obey
our parents, and the equally valid requirement that we find God
for ourselves. This is the meaning of Christ's most difficult saying:
"If anyone comes to
me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children
and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
For the Christian pilgrimage is one which takes us
into deep and uncharted waters. Though we are supplied with the
best equipment and training which our parents can provide, nevertheless,
as we go into the future, we must chart our own course. The final
irony in the relationship between Joseph and his son is that his
early death may account in part for the freedom which Jesus exhibited.
Though he was rooted in the traditions of his father, still he was
able to range far beyond those traditions. And that is the example
we should follow as we chart our course into the 21st century.
Today as we explore once again our understanding of
God, it would be completely inappropriate to apply woodenly to each
new situation the words and stories of Jesus. When he spoke of God
as father he was opening up a newer, deeper, more personal understanding
of God. So it does not serve us well to repeat routinely, "the
fatherhood of God, the fatherhood of God, the fatherhood of God."
Rather we must use our own perceptions of the world, we must speak
from our own faith, guided but not enslaved by tradition. In this
period of ferment and creativity, we too must go beyond the religion
of our fathers, even beyond the God of our fathers. We must follow
Jesus to a deeper, more personal, more intimate knowledge. And as
we seek deeper understanding, the God we find may shatter every
slogan and break every preconception, and we may find a faith which
is deeper, truer and richer still.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.