Summary: Jesus begins instructions on prayer only make sense when we have a proper understanding of who "Father" is.
A little boy comes home from Sunday School and tells his mother, “Guess what I learned today? God’s first name.” Intrigued she asked “What was it?” “Harold” came the reply “You know, Our Father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name”
Now we all know that Harold isn’t God’s first name, but the Lord’s Prayer does tell us what we can call God. For thousands of years the Jews had maintained that God’s name was too holy to use, and He was some distant deity way out there somewhere that we couldn’t relate to who certainly couldn’t relate to us and that we didn’t communicate with directly. To the Jews of Jesus day there had to be an intermediary, you went to the priest and they in turn offered sacrifices on your behalf to God.
You ever try to connect with someone through a middle man? And it just wasn’t happening? You know you really had to talk to someone but first you had to go through a receptionist, or secretary or maybe an operator. (Use clip from the Movie Transformers where a call is being made from the battle field to pentagon.)
And into this setting comes Jesus who says “Hey, when you pray you need to start by calling God by His name which is Father!”
The problem is that in order for this to work we need to have a decent view of our father. If your concept of a father is someone who is abusive or distant then this isn’t the best illustrative device. Dads don’t always get the greatest press, and for obvious reasons, you only have to watch the news or read the paper to realize that some fathers aren’t the nicest people around.
When we were in Australia we met a Christian singer by the name of Peter Shirley and he sang a song called “WOULD YOU REALLY MIND”:
“When I was just a child, I didn’t understand
Why my father left my mother with the waving of a hand.
He told me it was best this way, but I couldn’t figure why.
The solution to the problem made my mother cry.
Lord I find it hard to call you father,
My memories aren’t real fond of the father that I had,
LORD I find it hard to call you father, but would you really mind,
Would you really mind if I just called you friend.
I know this may be selfish, I know this may be wrong.
But I’m not sure my father loves me, I haven’t seen him for so long.
Lord you’re so much more to me than the father that I knew,
I know that you won’t leave me; your love will see me through.
Lord help me to understand, and ease this pain inside.
And help me to forgive, my father’s human side.
Unite us with your spirit, though in flesh we’re torn apart.
And take away this bitterness that’s wrapped around my heart.”
Somehow, what Jesus meant when he referred to father isn’t necessarily what the same association that some people make now when they think of their father. He’s saying light you’re thinking dark, he’s thinking protective you’re thinking abusive. You see when you’ve been physically or sexually abused by your father, when he drank the family’s food away, or constantly berated you and told you that you were no good. When the memory of your father, makes you angry or brings tears to your eyes then it’s going to be really difficult for you to feel good about a God who is called father. You may not even feel like you could pray to someone called father. You might share Lord Chesterfield’s feelings when he said “As fathers commonly go, it is seldom a misfortune to be fatherless; and considering the general run of sons, as seldom a misfortune to be childless.”
The problem with our language is that we define it by our own experiences. We can both be talking English, using the same words but thinking totally different things. If we are talking about cars and the subject turns to Oldsmobiles I would immediately think of my favourite car which was a 1971 Cutlass Supreme convertible that I owned when I was eighteen. But if your experience with General Motors products in general and Oldmobiles in particular has been bad, like perhaps you owned a 1982 Firenza then you would be thinking entirely different thoughts then I would. And for good reasons.
The entire Lord’s prayer is dependent on this opening line, and how we are going to view the rest of the prayer is going to depend on how we understand the opening remark. And so the only way that we can know what Jesus meant when he used the phrase “Our Father” is to look at other times that he used the term father and what it says about his concept of a father because remember he’s talking about his view of father not ours.