by Fr. Jack McArdle
It often helps in our understanding of a word, if we know where the word came from, and what is its meaning at origin. Take, for example, the word family. Familia is the Latin for household, and famulus is the Latin for servant. Therefore, we can assume that the root meaning of the word has to do with belonging, and with service. Accepting the privilege of belonging must also include the responsibility of service within the household. While not daring to attempt an understanding of what is mystery, we can know much of what is Deity. All three Persons of the Trinity are equally involved in such revelation. Jesus came to become one of us, so we might become part of what is divine. He uses language that is familiar to us, as we relate to each other. Grace builds on nature, rather than replacing it. Jesus spoke familiar words like Father, Son, brother, sister, and family. Before he was ready to show us who we are, and who we can become, he went to great length to show us who he is.
Jesus called himself Son of God, and he spoke of God as his Father. To fully understand this language, it would help if we thought of those words with the mind-set of his listeners. The bond between father and son was inalienable in the time of Jesus. Everything of what was life passed from father to son. What the father owned belonged to the son also, by nature of the relationship. 'All I have is yours', the father told the brother of the Prodigal Son. The whole point of the story is to show the need of the father to restore his wayward son to equal right within the family, no matter how much he had attempted to live outside of that unit. The family was a sacred entity, and it was the responsibility of every father to preserve that entity. It is not possible for our modern western minds to fully grasp the extraordinary implications of Jesus' claim on God as his Father, and to proclaim himself Son of God. This was language that was totally blasphemous to the ears of the leaders, because of their understanding of God. God was in the burning bush, the fire and brimstone, and the plagues of Egypt. The chasm between the human and divine was infinite, and it was not within their competence to visualise a coming together of those extremes. Through Incarnation, God became one with us, right down to the words and language we use to speak of God. If God is infinite in everything, then he is infinitely simple. The most profound truths are capable of being expressed in the simplest language. If God wanted to give us a sense of belonging, he could choose no simpler, or, indeed, more profound way than to bring us into a relationship with him that is one of family. Jesus called God Father, and he taught us to pray to God by calling him 'Our Father...'.
As I've said already, the relationship between son and father was an extremely unique one with the Hebrew culture. The greatest treachery they could envisage was that inflicted by a son against his father. Abraham was tested to the very limits, when he was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. I believe that Abraham had to live with the reality of this for a while, with all its horrible implications, even if we, in hindsight could not imagine a God who would demand such abject subservience. God, as we know, did not go through with this demand, but Abraham's willingness to comply is given us as the supreme act of obedience. In Jesus, God himself would go through with his promise, and sacrifice his own Son, and, for those who accept the full ramifications of this, he would be seen to have given us the highest possible expression of his love for us.
Jesus, while being Son of God, was, of course, God himself. Therefore, because of his union with the Father, his will was totally in tune with the will of the Father. 'I never say anything unless the Father tells me. I and the Father are one. They who see me, see the Father'. This was at the core of Jesus' message. It would be totally and completely to miss the whole thrust of the gospels to think of Jesus as one expression of the Deity, and to retain the possibility of there being another expression with a different agenda. Many of us grew up with the concept of God as some old man, with a long white beard, away up in the sky somewhere, who continually kept tabs on us, and who was always ready to confront us with our wrong-doings. There is only one God, and that is the God of the gospels, the God who is revealed in the person and in the message of Jesus. At the Last Supper, Philip asked Jesus 'Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied'. Jesus replied 'Philip, don't you even yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. So why are you asking to see him? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words I say are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of what you have seen me do.' I have quoted this at some length, because of all the chapters in this book, this is one in which I could do nothing better than let Jesus speak for himself! His relationship with his Father was a constant theme, and it is my belief that if I could believe and accept this truth, I would actually be in total acceptance of the core of the gospel message.
Original sin was one of disobedience. The fall of Lucifer was the result of refusing to serve. In himself, Jesus came to turn all of that around irrevocably. His whole life would be one of total obedience to the Father, and his death would be the greatest expression of that obedience. 'My very meat is to do the will of Him who sent me'. Jesus spent many hours, late at night, in prayer to the Father. It was after such times that he chose his apostles, that he presented his core teachings on the Mount, that he faced his trial and his death. It was as if he were continually checking in with his Father for the latest instructions. I am not saying that Jesus himself didn't know what to do. What I mean is that, by listening to the Father, he was doing the Father's will, and not his own. In Gethsemane he prayed 'Father, if it is possible let this chalice pass from me; but not my will but yours be done'. Jesus had, of course, a will and a mind of his own. He had to have this to be able to claim his own personhood. He was not a programmed robot, nor was he the victim of some unalterable predestination. Of his own free will and choice he chose to do the Father's will in everything, because the evil he came to redress was the outcome of disobedience, and of self-will run riot.
God is love, and all revelations about the Father is of one who loves without condition. The story of the Forgiving Father, which is usually called the Prodigal Son, is a resume of the kind of love in question. The Father waits, and longs for the son's return. There are no remonstrations, no condemnations, and no conditions attaching to the son's return to the family. The father even supplies sandals for the son, something that was worn only when travelling. In other words, the son was free to leave again, if he wanted to. The Father's love was total and unconditional. 'I know the Father. No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.' Because Jesus knew the Father, he painted a picture to show something of what his Father was, and of how he deals with his children. This Father loves because he is good, and nothing changes that, whether a child is good, bad, or indifferent.
In a way, the Father is like a large umbrella that Jesus opens out, and invites us to gather underneath. We are invited to stand under the Niagara of his love. In the Old Testament, God offered himself as the only God, and the people were invited to become his people. This was a God-subject relationship, where the emphasis was laid on the responsibilities of the subject. They were to adore, to serve, and to fear their God. The relationship was based on commandment and edict, and the rewards were acquired, earned, and merited. Jesus changed all of that irrevocably. He offered a God who was Father, and the people were invited to become his children. In fact, Jesus went so far as to state that, unless they became like children, they could not enter the home of his Father. God has no grandchildren. We are all his children, in close and direct relationship. This relationship was based on love, rather than law, and the commandments were replaced with the responsibility of loving God, and loving neighbour. In fact, Jesus went so far as to put these two on an equal footing, and he declared that whatever we do for others is accepted by him as being done for him. If God is our Father, then we become brothers and sisters. He said that he and the Father are one; and he now adds that he and each of us are called to be one. 'Father, I pray that they may be one, just as you and I are one; that just as you are in me, and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe that you sent me.' It is extraordinary, if not frightening, to think that Jesus hinged the whole credibility of his message on the evidence of our love for each other. 'Where there is love, there is God. They who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.' The religious leaders of his day based their whole teaching on a love of law. There is no way they could understand, or were prepared to accept a law of love. Of all the things Jesus said, nothing upset them more than that he called himself God's Son. This was blasphemy, and therefore, merited death. Yes, indeed, Jesus called himself the Son of God, and his doing so would lead very predictably to his death. It is ironic that what the leaders saw as rightful and deserved punishment, was seen by God as the logical expression of unbounded love. 'Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down a life for a friend.'
In the previous chapter I spoke of Jesus as our Moses, bringing us into the Promised Land. As the Son of God, he leads us right into the family of God. 'Who are my mother, and my brothers, and my sisters? Those who do the will of my Father in heaven are my mother, my brothers, and my sisters.' Belonging to the family qualifies us to receive the full benefit of family inheritance, and of privilege. He tells us that we can ask the Father for anything in his name, and we will receive it. Our membership in God's family entitles us to full access to the treasuries of heaven. 'The Father will surely give the Spirit to those who ask him.' In this is salvation completed, when the Father, Son, and Spirit come to live in us. ' .....and We will make our home in him.' Redemption is now complete. In his prayer to the Father at the Last Supper, Jesus prays 'And now I am coming to you......I have given them your word.....And I give myself entirely to you, so that they might be entirely yours.' With his dying breath, Jesus submitted himself to his Father. 'I have finished the work that you gave me to do..........Into your hands I commend my spirit.' He promised that he would send his Spirit to complete his work in us. The Spirit would remind us of all he had told us. 'This is not a Spirit of fear', Paul tells us 'but a Spirit of sonship that would enable us to cry out Abba, Father.'
E-mail this article to a friend
'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.