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The Fatherhood of God
Shedding new light on a familiar theme

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 drama.

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 of God.

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 carpenter's son?"

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.

Also, consider:

Father's Day Prayer: prayers, poetry, and famous quotations about fatherhood, some inspirational, some humorous, some thought provoking.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.