The Liberating nature of Abba

Jesus’ use of Abba is already in part a critique of the Temple and the Jerusalem elite’s interpretation of the Covenant message.

Jesus’ use of Abba is already in part a critique of the Temple and the Jerusalem elite’s interpretation of the Covenant message. The Mosaic title for God – Hebrew’s holiest word that still today no Orthodox Jew will use is ‘Yahweh’. Given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). “I will be who I will be, I am who I am, and I will be where I will be”. In other words, God is beyond our concepts and feeble imaginings, he is Lord of history and master of creation. You can see the danger of this name. Too holy to be named God must be too holy to be near. (Opening up the danger of those who step in and control ‘an appropriate’ access to the holy.) Here we have one of the classic dangers for religion, the option for utter transcendence! But when the disciples say “How should we pray?” Jesus counters this and says “Our Father – Abba” – close, familial and every day. The God of domestic mess is the God who is where we all are. In using this name, Jesus had already subverted the power of Temple and cult, and potentially of those who controlled access to the God by Temple and cult. This would have immediate economic implications – since forgiveness was controlled by costly Temple sacrifices. In the Little Tradition as taught by Jesus, forgiveness is a direct transaction between God and us but also implying just as direct a transaction between us and those who trespass against us. If we have direct access to Abba so does our enemy!

If the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Abba then all sorts of relationships change, all sorts of limits disappear. “Many will come from East and West and sit at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the sons of the Reign will be thrown into outer darkness” Matthew 8:14. The so often forgotten and latent universalism of Israelite faith flames forth again. Israel was called to be a sign to the nations not an end in itself. (Similarly the Church as the New Israel is called to a similar universalism, and yet in its history its members mostly settle for a sect. It is noticeable that the American Founding Fathers and Mothers emphasised the Ten Commandments and its Purity codes but paid little heed to the Debt codes).

Jesus provokes the people to rediscover the radical freedom of the rule of Abba through story and parable. A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to be saved, to inherit eternal life, after a conversation the lawyer sums up the law with Love God and Love neighbour. Jesus applauds him. But the lawyer in a typical Rabbinic fashion says but who is my neighbour? The Rabbis emphasised the periphery of the circle within which love of neighbour could be practiced. Jesus subverts this by breaking open the circle.

Jesus’ answer to the lawyer is not a technical definition of the limits of the circle of neighbours. Jesus starts from everyday life – a mugging on the Jericho road. An everyday occurrence. The listeners are immediately in sympathy with the victim, since it could be them next. Along comes a Priest on his way to the Temple, avoiding ritual impurity and the loss of his Temple service and income, he walks by. Similarly the Levite. The crowds reaction would have been noisy and vociferous – “typical -more interested in their dues” etc. The tradition of Jewish stories is much like our own with a trio of characters, and the third of the trio is always the hero. The crowds looking up as it were with the eyes of their mugged countrymen expect to see one of their own, an ordinary good chap who will be the minister of God’s grace. But Jesus’ story explodes their expectations of where God’s grace is to be found.

Looking up they instead see their hated enemy. Who anoints them with fine oil, puts them on his horse, takes them to a four star hotel, tells the manager to look after them giving him the money to do so, and says he will return to settle any difference! All their prejudices are attacked; their stereotypes are reversed, as this religious, racial, economic and political alien becomes the agent of God’s mercy toward them. This is the Kingdom of Abba, an alternative vision breaking in and offering to transform the world of the hearers. The crowd would have been as amazed as the lawyer, who when Jesus asks: “ Who was the neighbour?” Can only mutter “The one who helped him.”

This is an extraordinary attack on formal religion, on the Temple and what its cult had come to stand for. It re-locates the religious centre outside of purity and ritual. It is a re-affirmation of the earliest of the Israelite traditions of the Law/Torah with its emphasis in Exodus 22: 21ff; Leviticus 19:9f and Deuteronomy 24:11ff. An emphasis on unconditional love and responsibility for the neighbour, the alien and the needy (Cf. Sabbath and Jubilee Years) and of the covenant as gracious election. Jesus refuses to see the covenant as moral and racial superiority. God as Father of Creation has a prior covenant with all creation. Here the Samaritan heretic is presented as God’s agent. Jesus’ parable locates the centre of religion beyond the margins that some Rabbis set. There is no definition of neighbour here but the enacting of the quality of love that Abba and his children are to offer to all.

So the parable opens up unforeseen possibilities. It presents an alternative imagined world, the Kingdom, in terms so shockingly real that they can subvert the limits of the present world. Again Jesus’ table fellowship breaks boundaries and blurs margins. Who is in and who is out? (Cf. Luke 14:15-24) Again and again the Kingdom is discovered among those who were thought outside it.

Jesus’ lifestyle kept crossing boundaries: social, gender, ritual and religious such as in Luke 5:27-32; radical itinerancy in Matthew 6:25-33; programmatic homelessness in Matthew 8:19-20 and he models a fundamental egalitarianism cf. Mark 3:31-35. He died because he invited a new perspective. For many then, as now, this was threatening. They all hand him over so as to stay as they were.

Jesus’ stories and encounters broke open the narrow perspectives of his time and revealed the real currents that were at their heart. He disturbed his listeners, made them aware of the unsatisfied depths and unacknowledged fears within each of them, of the compromises they had settled for. In Jesus’ ministry, he displaces the centre of religion and the marginalized become the focus for the new unholy centre of the kingdom of God (Luke 10:30-35). What is interesting is where Jesus reads his interpretation from. The standpoint he takes. We might consider where do we read the Gospel from?

Should anyone be poor in the church? Might not Christian communities where no one is poor act as a sign towards the eradication of poverty in our world? Maybe we tend to think more like the Holiness Code realism as opposed to the Deuteronomic view of a society without poor. Or perhaps like the Covenant Code in offering help and justice for poor, while the Exodus narrative promises no poor at all. We have to answer the question Jesus put to the Rabbi: “How do you read the text?” Depending on our answer we are with him or against him.