Jesus' Name for God: Abba

by Fr. John Fullenbqach, SVD

Suggested reading: 1. The Image of God: Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition, by Kari Elisabeth Borresen (Editor) Kari Elizabeth Borresen, (1995) $20.00, 2. Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, by David Blankenhorn, (1996) Paperback, $11.20 and 3. Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society, by Mary Ann Glendon (Editor), David Blankenhorn (Editor), (1995) Hard cover, $19.57 available at our conneaction with amazon.com

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  Questions constantly heard about Christianity are "What was Jesus all about? What did he really bring? Have we preserved his message? What did Jesus communicate so powerfully that people felt as if they were under a spell and left everything to follow this man from Nazareth?" Jesus himself expressed his mission in these words: I came to throw fire on this earth and how much I desire to see it burning. (Lk l2.49)

What is this FIRE Jesus came to throw into this world and with which he himself was burning? The word Fire is a symbol. What does it stand for? What does it mean to say, "Jesus' message is fire? What did Jesus want to say with the symbol of fire? This much is sure: fire indicates something dangerous, revolutionary, not leaving things as they are. Jesus' message is not just an idea, not even a grand idea which can be stored with many other ideas without it affecting any change in one's life.

On the contrary, his vision aims at transformation, it has a revolutionary thrust as the phrase that follows in 12:52 indicates, "I did not come to bring peace but division." Jesus is saying, "Do not think that l came to leave you in peace, no, I came to disturb, to upset and to change things. The world will never be the same after I have thrown my fire on it." The Good News Jesus is "on fire with": the God-experience of Jesus.

But what was it that drove this man, that burned in him, that gave him an identity, that defined his mission and that he had to communicate to others? To sum it up, we could say it was his personal experience of who God really is. Jesus experienced God as one who was coming as unconditional (love, who was entering human history in a way and to a degree not known by the prophets. The rather unusual fact is that Jesus used for this God who was coming with him and through him the word: "ABBA" Unusual in the sense that Judaism knew the word God for Father but not this endearment form Abba.

Other ancient religions, as well as the Jews of the Old Testament, knew the word "Father" for God. Homer, for example, calls Zeus "the father of men and gods." In the Old Testament God is called "Father" only fourteen times. Many of these passages, however, are very important. God's fatherhood in the Old Testament is never linked to mythological motifs (as in the ancient world) but always to the events of salvation history. God reveals himself as father by acts of saving power in the history of his people.

Absolute authority and "tenderness" are the two important aspects of "fatherhood" in the Old Testament. Tenderness is a word we normally associate more with a mother. The concept of Father for God in the Old Testament is, therefore, not to be understood in authoritarian categories and definitely not to be construed in male-chauvinistic terms. Attributes that our culture attaches to the concept of "mother" also belong to the biblical image of God as Father. By calling God, Father, the Old Testament stresses the tenderness, mercy, care and love of God for his people. Fuerst explains the Old Testament nuances at length:

The social meaning for "father" in Israel had to do with authority, care, discipline, protection, and dignity. It represented a role in a society that is harshly judged and incompletely understood today. It makes no sense to wish that Israel's God might not have been called father or king. At least when God's work is compared to that of a parent, the language is warm, gentle, affectionate, nurturing, caring, and at the very least and by any accounts, respectful. When God is called father the texts are talking about creation, leading, and affection. "Father" was a social assumption, part of the social and cultural mold into which the faith of the Old Testament was poured. Like "king," it had a rightful and necessary place in the mold; to remove it is not an editor's job, because it would require an operation with an incision three thousand years old (Fuerst, How Israel Conceived and Addressed God, P.73).

The prophets in particular reveal the depth of Yahweh's relationship to his people expressed in his fatherly care which contrasts with their constant ingratitude. The final word about divine fatherhood is God's incomprehensible mercy and forgiveness:

For I am a father to Israel and Ephraim is my first born (Jer 31:9). Is Ephraim not my dear son... Is he not my darling child? Therefore, my heart yearns for him; I must have mercy on him (Jer 31:20). And I thought you would call me "My Father" and would not turn from following me (Jer 3:19ff).

When Israel was young, I loved him; I called my son out of Egypt. It was I who taught him to walk. I who had taken him in my arms. . . I drew them with strings of love. I was to them like one who lifts a little infant close against the chin. I bent down and gave him to eat (Hos 11:1ff).

Stand not aloof! For you are our Father. Abraham ignores us and Israel does not acknowledge us. You, Yahweh, are our Father, "our redeemer" is your name from of old! (Is 63:15ff).

However, according to Jeremias, the invocation of God as "my Father" or "our Father" never occurs directly in any prayer in the Old Testament. The language is always indirect as though it implied a promise of what would be fulfilled someday.

In contrast, in the Rabbinic literature the expression "heavenly Father" is used for God. Even the two words "Our Father" are found in Jewish prayers used in their liturgy. It occurs three times in the Eighteen Benedictions (Amidah): "Make us return, Our Father, to your Torah", or, "Forgive us, Out Father, for we have sinned," and again, "Bless us all, Our Father. . ." The same could be said about the services for the New Year and the Day of Atonement. The invocation of God as "Our Father" expresses the trust and confidence, the security and mutual love, between God and God's people (The Prayers of Jesus In Their Contemporary Setting, published by The Study Center for Christian-Jewish Relations, 17, pp. 9-10).

Matthew seems to have taken over this Rabbinic tradition, whose meaning is expressed in two convictions: first, one has to obey God, which is equal to following the Torah; secondly, God is the one who helps in time of need, particularly when no one else can or will help. However, in later Judaism, a development away from the prophets ensues when God is spoken of as the "Father of the individual Israelite," the one who cares for the individual personally.

Thou art he whose mercy toward us is greater than that of a father toward his son. On whom can we depend? Only on our heavenly Father. My son, if you return, will it not be a return to your Father? (Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, pp. 29, 52, 96-98)

The Rabbinical teaching always distinguished between paternity and fatherhood. Paternity denotes the person who is responsible for the birth of a child: there is only a physical connection between father and child. Fatherhood, in contrast, describes a relationship of love and intimacy, of confidence and trust between parent and child.

The New Testament refers 421 times to God. Of these, 183 (43 percent) call him "Father" absolutely or the Father of Jesus or the believer. It is, therefore, the dominant model of God. Sixty-five percent of the texts in John and 56 percent of those in Matthew refer to God as Father (cf. Kreutz, "God in the New Testament," p.87). In the Gospels we find the word "Father" for God on the lips of Jesus 170 times. "Father" was evidently the designation for God in Jesus' preaching. Mark uses it four times, Luke fifteen, Matthew forty-two and John 108. There is a definite increase in the use of the word, particularly in Matthew, in comparison to Luke, and Mark, Kreutz explains this development:

Matthew's striking and frequent use of "Father" for God marks his most significant departure from Markan and Lukan patterns. "He uses the term over forty times in a variety of expressions. . . He presents the most vivid interpretation of the father idea among the four Gospels... God is a Father who rewards the modest, hears those of a few words and forgives us when we are forgiving towards others." (God in the New Testament, p. 85-86).

In John it becomes THE title for God where it usually denotes the special relationship of Jesus to God. After a thorough analysis of the Gospel passages closest to the actual words of Jesus, Jeremias concludes:

The important thing is that we have discovered that all four gospel traditions report unanimously and without any hesitation that Jesus constantly addressed God as "My Father" (except Mk 15:34), and show that in so doing he used the Aramaic form "ABBA." To call God ABBA is one of the most outstanding characteristics of the historical Jesus (The Prayers of Jesus, p.57).

"ABBA" belongs to the language of childhood and the home, a diminutive of endearment, used by adults for their own fathers. For the Jewish mind, ABBA was THE Word that could express most adequately the most intimate and personal relationship anyone could think of. It was, therefore, inconceivable for a Jew to address God with the word "ABBA." Such an address would not indicate adequate respect for Yahweh and cause scandal to godly persons.

 

About the Author... Fr. John Fullenbach, SVD, a member of the Society of the Divine Word, has among his degrees a degree in Horticulture, an M.A. in Sociology, a doctorate in Philosophy and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology. He is an internationally renown lecturer and teacher, dividing his time between the Philippines and Rome where he teaches at the Gregorian University. This article is condensed from his presentation at the 1998 Theological Symposium of the Association of Diocesan Liaisons to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, held at Jamaica, N.Y. Suggested reading on this subject: "Throw fire" (1998 ISBN: 971-510-116-X), by Fr. Fullenbach, Logos Publications, Inc., 1916 Oroquieta St., Sta. Cruz, Manila.

 

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