This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Call No One Your Father.

            We find in the gospels a passage where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). 
            Notice that Jesus lists six different relationships as having been “left” by his disciples: house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, and fields.  Then, these disciples receive six things in return: houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, and persecutions.  The two lists are slightly and significantly different.  The former includes “fathers,” while the latter does not.  The latter includes “persecutions,” while the former does not.  In other words, the disciples exchange fathers for persecutions.
            Jesus says that there will be no “fathers” in the Kingdom of God.  In Jesus’ culture, the father was the absolute ruler of the household.  He owned all the property and had all the rights.  Wives, children, and servants were hardly more than property.  When Jesus says there are to be no fathers in the Kingdom of God, he means there will be no dominating central power.  No boss.  Certainly no tyrant.  No single knot of power and authority.  All these other relationships will be retained.  Disciples will have shelter and work, they will have sisters and brothers.  They will even have mothers!  But no fathers.
            Then, perhaps because there are no fathers, and the social system of the gathering of disciples will have no central authority and will therefore be eccentric, unintelligible, and even offensive to the rest of society, the disciples will also have to deal with persecutions.  Without the protective function of the father, the gathering is vulnerable. 
            Jesus thus deliberately breaks the social contract in which people habitually trade in their freedom for security.  That kind of security, the security that comes from violence, retributive justice, coercion, and an endless feeding of militarism, is rejected by Jesus.  The resultant vulnerability is a small price to pay for the freedom to follow Jesus and live together in peace.
            The gathering does receive immeasurable benefits.  They do get shared property.  They do receive manifold relationships.  They are blessed with maternal nurture and support.  (Jesus dismisses fathers and keeps mothers.  The argument could even be made that Jesus is advocating a matriarchal system here.)  They are given meaningful and good work to do.  If acquiring these benefits means alienating the powers that dominate the world, so be it.  If it brings their paranoid wrath down upon them, so be it. 
            The gathering of disciples will not exchange the wonderful blessings of the new community for an oppressive and violent security.  Such security is far too expensive.  It is a protection racket, guaranteeing the wealth and power of the few who are already wealthy and powerful.  It is a conspiracy of ruling classes by which they keep each other in power by demonizing and threatening each other.  It is not true security at all, since it leaves the people under the domination of the rulers.  They ask us to believe that being subservient to our own rulers is somehow better than being subservient to the rulers from somewhere else from whom they are supposedly protecting the people.
            The gathering will not have any earthly, human “fathers,” but the gathering will not be fatherless.  Jesus says: “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).  The point is that all the people are equal, children of the one God who is the only “father” in the sense of a source of authority and security.  Earthly and human fathers are negated and overridden by the heavenly Father.  God is not a human father in capital letters.  God is not the projected perfection of the qualities we find in human fathers.  Still less is God a father in such a way that validates or authorizes human fatherhood.  No.  God is the anti-father.  God turns the institution of fatherhood upside-down.  (Neither is this a referendum on our actual human fathers.  My dad was great.)  God, as  “heavenly Father” actually negates and undermines the authority and power of human fathers, which is to say all human systems of domination, control, coercion, punishment, and violence. 
           Unfortunately, the church quickly fell from this understanding and practice.  They started propping up various kinds of “fathers” very early.  At first, as with the desert fathers, I think it was a matter of holding teachers and mentors in the highest respect.  But this degenerated into a sense that these human figures were somehow representatives of God’s fatherhood among the people.  Then it became a simple and easy thing to mistake for God’s fatherhood the controlling, dominating, shallow, violent fatherhood of humans.  Certainly the best abbots, presbyters, bishops, and priests understood the servant/sacrifice model of fatherhood we see in Jesus.  They understood God alone as the true Father.  But many, many more became little tyrants, lording their ego-centric wills over their flocks like abusive fathers.
            In any case, Jesus is here saying that his new community will not have dominating leaders, but will be “flat” in the sense of a gathering of equals.  Some will be “mothers,” perhaps in the sense of providing resources, stories, wisdom, consolation, and blessing.  The rest of us will be siblings, learning together the practices of discipleship.

1 comment:

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