Thinking about what it means to be a Father


A sermon preached on Father’s Day, June 20th, 2010.

What do we know about the relationship Jesus had with Joseph, his earthly father?  Not a whole lot.  

In the Christmas story, Matthew tells us that had it not been for an intervention by an angel of the Lord, Jesus might well have grown up with out a dad.  In the early drama of Jesus’ life, Joseph’s role seems to have been primarily that of protector, following the leadings of God given him in dreams to safeguard his son from the threats on his life posed by King Herod. 

We know Joseph was a carpenter, and so presumably as a young child Jesus would have spent time around his Dad at work in his shop.   And this is a wonderful thing for a kid to do, absorbing his or her dad’s energy as he does whatever it is he does.

 For the most part, it’s quite different these days.  Ever since the industrial revolution, more often than not children rarely get to see their dads at work.   When I was a boy, my dad left early in the morning to catch a train to go off to an office in New York City.   He’d carry a briefcase with papers I couldn’t make sense of, and occasionally I’d hear him talk on the phone with guys named “Frank”, but from these obscure clues I could glean little insight into what it was my dad did when he went to “work.”

The only story we have from Jesus’ childhood suggests that his relationship to his parents was not without tension, and as such, it was like the relationship of any other child to their parents.  Luke tells us of how when Jesus was twelve, an apparently feeling the need to separate himself from his parents, he wandered off on a family trip to Jerusalem without bothering to tell them where he was going.  After three days of frantic searchings, Jesus’ mom and dad finally find him in the temple:

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’

Evidently, his parents didn’t always “get” Jesus; his peculiar ways left them at times scratching their heads and not a little bit annoyed.

(The boy Jesus) said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’  (Luke 2:48 -49)

I hear a sting in these words.  Apparently, on at least this one occasion, Jesus, feeling smothered, rebelled against his parents’ authority, wounding them with his need to be separate.  

Joseph was most likely a good deal older than Mary, and we hear no further mention of him in the Gospels after this rather painful incident that took place when Jesus was 12.   In all likelihood, Joseph died well before Jesus began his ministry, and perhaps even while Jesus was still an adolescent struggling to find his way.   (I wonder if Jesus ever regretted the harshness of the words he had spoken to his father that day back in the temple.)

I’ve been thinking this week about some basic questions about what it means to be a father.  I mean:  What exactly IS a father?  We come in so many different shapes and sizes, styles and demeanors.  

Is there a difference between the love of a father, and the love of a mother? Oftentimes we assume that over and beyond the obvious differences they embody in terms of anatomy there is something inherently different between fathers and mothers.   But when we get to thinking about what those differences are, well, the distinctions get fuzzier under closer examination.  

There is, for instance, a traditional stereotype regarding mothers and fathers in which the domain of mothers is seen to be the home.  Their presence there conveys safety, nurture, and unconditional love. The domain of fathers, in contrast, is seen to be the larger world beyond the home:  they go forth into the world to earn a living and provide for the family.  Fathers serve as the children’s guide as they begin to move beyond the safety of the home.  

The masculine love of a father is viewed as more demanding — challenging the child to take risks, to become independent and strong.  Whereas the mother’s love is seen as unconditional, the father’s love is viewed as having certain conditions to it:  It is a love that to some extent must be earned as the child goes forth to meet the challenges presented by the larger world.  

In past generations these sorts of generalizations made more sense:  The work world was primarily the domain of men and the homes the domain of women, but as we all know, so much in this regard has changed, especially in recent years.

As far as we know, Jesus never had any biological children (though as scholars have pointed out, in the culture in which Jesus lived it would have been extremely unusual for a man of his age NOT to have a wife and children.)

Nonetheless, as we all know fathering isn’t something done only by biological fathers.  Jesus was a father of a sort to his disciples and to the others to whom he mentored and ministered.   And what we see in the example Jesus set nearly two thousand years before gender roles would begin to shift so dramatically, is that Jesus often broke out of the cultural stereotypes of what a father — or for that matter, a man — was about.

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13 – 16)

So tender towards the little children; so affectionate, so accepting.  The disciples had assumed that children don’t belong in Jesus’ work world.  But clearly he does have a place for them there. 

Jesus conjured up that compelling story about the rebellious son who goes off to the far country to squander his father’s money.  Penniless, the young man heads home assuming he’s lost his father’s love by his reckless behavior — that his only hope is to begin a long, difficult process of earning back his father’s love back.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”   (Luke 15:20 – 24)

A father who loves unconditionally, like a mother, casting aside his concern for what others would consider a lack dignity in order to embrace his long lost son come home. 

And yet there are other stories where we see Jesus playing the part of the father who demands the child put in more of an effort; take greater risks, show some balls, so to speak.  

Immediately (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

And early in the morning (Jesus) came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’  And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’    He said,  ‘Come.’

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’  (Matthew 14:22 – 31)

In other words,You have it in you, kid.! You’re not living up to your potential.  I expect more out of you than what you’re giving.’

On occasion Jesus would rebuke the disciples, chastise them.  When he needs to, he’s quite capable of kicking butt.  He drives home the message that in life we need courage, and courage doesn’t mean having no fear, but rather facing our fears as best we can – doing what needs to be done in spite of our fears.

And so Jesus embodied both traditionally feminine and masculine qualities; unconditional love, AND a love that challenges us, disciplines us, pushes to grow in our capacity to take responsibility for that which is ours to take.  

When you think about it, this isn’t surprising.   God is intent to bring forth the innate wholeness with which we were created.  We read in the first chapter of the Bible that

God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.   (Genesis 1:27)

God, according to the creation story, is neither strictly masculine, nor strictly feminine, but both, and if we are to shine forth God’s image we will embrace both our masculine and feminine qualities. 

But we human fathers aren’t perfect; which is to say we’re human. 

My kids showed me this video on youtube that went “viral” as they say in which a family is driving in their car, with mom and dad in the front,  and three kids – two daughters, maybe nine and seven and a two year old brother in a car seat —  in the back seat.  The girls beg their parents to put on the pop song, “All the Single Ladies” by Beyoncé.  The parents oblige, and the girls begin singing along with energetic hand movements.   Happily, the little brother begins mimicking his big sisters until the father says, “You’re not a single Lady, pal,” in response to which the little boy immediately stops, looks crestfallen, and slowly begins to cry.   While one sister tries to console her little brother, the other looks at her dad with total irritation for being such a party pooper.  The dad quickly realizes he’s blown it; tries to tell his son he can be a “single lady” if he wants to, but it’s too late; the damage is done.   The father looks into the camera and says, “I’m a horrible father.”  

He isn’t a horrible father – far from it – but even good fathers blow it on occasion. 

Sometimes we’re absent when our children need us to be present, and sometimes we’re hard when they need us to be soft, and soft when they need us to be hard.

Sometimes we’re clueless, with little understanding of the unique person God has made our child to be and therefore can’t provide much help in their quest to become that person.

Sometimes we can’t resist the temptation to try and make our children over into our image – a walking monument to ourselves.  

Sometimes we have little tolerance for ourselves when we are broken, confused and hurting, and in turn find ourselves intolerable to our children’s failures and pain. 

Sometimes we don’t know how to take responsibility in the ways we need to take responsibility and so what hope do we have to show our kids how to take responsibility for their lives?

Sometimes we grew up without much fathering ourselves and so there are times when we are trying to be a good dad when we feel ourselves to be play acting — making it up as we go.

Which is simply to say that we’re all in this humanity thing together. 

Joseph, although he may well have been a good father, wasn’t a perfect father, and indeed, if he did in fact die early on in Jesus’ life, Joseph was in part an absent father, and so I suspect that Jesus himself carried some “father wounds” into this world, just like the rest of us. 

And one way to understand the Gospel message that Jesus came preaching is to grab hold of the idea that the power behind the universe is trying to father us; that the one who called us into existence loves us more than we know.  Sometimes this love comes to us as unconditional acceptance and sometimes it comes to us as a rebuke that says “You can do better than that.”

Perhaps it was this truth that Jesus saw clearly that day he gathered at the river with so many poor slobs like you and me, submitting himself to the masculine ministry of John the Baptizer, letting himself be dunked to enact death by drowning. 

And just as (Jesus) was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.   And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’  (Mark 1:10 – 11)

And lest Jesus or anybody else get the idea that the love with which God in heaven loved him was nothing more than a warm and fuzzy love, that strong, fathering love proceeded to drive Jesus out into the wilderness for what amounted to Spiritual boot camp: 

 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  (Mark 1:12-13)

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