Although it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Jesus used the Aramaic word “abba” in addressing God, the word that is used for the Father in the two Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Prayer is the Greek word “pater.”
That fact should be taken into account as interpreters seek to understand the meaning of this statement (addressing God as “Our Father”), especially when it comes to speculations as to the possible meanings that the word “abba” might carry.
Some interpreters have suggested that Jesus’ alleged usage of “abba” carries with it a sense of intimacy that would have been novel, perhaps even carrying with it the sense of “daddy.”
This usage is very tempting because it appeals to our desire to share in an intimate relationship with God. Indeed, I myself desire such a relationship, one that is deeply personal and intimate, especially since my relationship with my own father, who is now deceased, was anything but close or intimate.
To read this into the prayer, however, requires a degree of speculation that might not be warranted. What we have before us is the Greek word, and it carries a different sense of relationship. One needn’t reject the idea of intimacy, but one should be careful how this interpretation is used.
If we start with the word in the text, “pater,” and then try to understand what the original readers might have thought when they read it, what would they have understood Jesus to be teaching them?
It would be helpful to note that the word “pater” provides the root for such words as “patriarch” and “patron.” Considering the rest of the prayer, and the fact that Jesus sets it in his teaching on the kingdom of God, we might want to think in terms of a patron or sponsor. Such an idea would reflect well Jesus’ own context.
To get a sense of what is happening here you might want to watch one of those old epic Roman movies, like “Ben Hur.” In that movie, Judah Ben Hur, a Jewish prince, is enslaved on a Roman galley. When he saves the life of the commander of the ship, Judah first becomes a gladiator and then later is freed and made son and heir of the Roman commander by adoption.
What we learn in this film is that one needn’t be born into a family to have all the rights and responsibilities of a member of the household. By his own decision, the Roman noble, Arius, adopts Judah Ben Hur, who takes the name Arius and calls the Roman his father.
To push the image further and perhaps even closer to the context of the prayer, in the Roman world the emperor was considered the Great Father of the people. So, one could say that in addressing God as Father, the early Christians were signaling that their ultimate allegiance was to God and not the emperor.
In making this reference to God, we get a sense of the subversiveness in the prayer.
That is not to say that there is in this prayer a call to active revolt, but rather that obedience to the emperor or the state was tempered by the teachings of the faith. The emperor may be the temporal ruler, but for Christians there was only one patron or sponsor, and that was God; the God who had adopted them into the household.
So, as we pray this prayer, each of us is forced to ask the question: To whom do I owe my allegiance? Is it God, or is it nation, family or some other identity?
Bob Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Mich. His column has been excerpted from his new book, “Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer.”
Bob Cornwall is Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan.