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7. The Pre-eminence of the Father

Beginning from this chapter we will start discussing what John says about God. I invite you to fasten your seat-belts and prepare yourself for dizzying flights. John has not been compared with an eagle without reason. More than the other Gospels John tries to explain unspeakable things: what God is like; how Jesus reveals God to us; how God is present in our Christian experience.

There have been great theologians like the Jew Maimonides who maintain that no human thought about God could be correct. Their contention is not as stupid as we might think it is. Being infinite, God is so different from anything we know on this earth that all our ideas must fall short. No comparison we make will ever do justice to God. We are like fish in a glass bowl looking at the Encyclopaedia Britannica! Or like a sparrow explaining to its mate the meaning of Shakespeare's Macbeth! Every creature can only understand the world in terms of its own concepts. We will never be able to grasp God fully, the way he really is.

Of course, the opposite is equally true. Because God is the most important reality there is, even the little we know of him is more important than anything else we know. That is why it is worth our while to really make an effort in this area. Grappling with the notion God, wrestling with his reality, will be very rewarding. But we should be prepared for riddles, paradoxes, even jolts and shocks.

I was once invited to give a seminar to a group of bishops on the historicity of the Gospels. When I spoke about the infancy narratives, I could see that some were irritated and upset. I had a hard time trying to explain that such parts of the Gospel cannot simply be called historical; that we need to study their legendary and theologising literary forms. In fact, one old and rather conservative bishop was so troubled that I felt the need of approaching him personally afterwards. "Bishop", I said, "I hope that I have not upset you". "My young man", he answered gruffly, "some things you said gave me a nasty shock. But it helps me. I need it. Please, go on telling me what you see as the truth. I learned more from you in three days than from others in ten years".

It is with confidence in such openness to truth and the power of prayerful reflection that I will present John's teaching to you. The message John gives us is extremely captivating and beautiful. He tries to explain to us how God came to meet us in Jesus. He wants us to enter Jesus' own way of thinking, to feel what Jesus felt. Small wonder that he devotes so much time and space to Jesus' self-revelation during the Last Supper.

Jesus' imminent departure from this world hung over the Last Supper as a dark shadow. Much of what Jesus said on that fateful evening was aimed at preparing his disciples for a Christian life without his visible presence. He explained how he would remain with them through his Spirit and his indwelling. He exhorted them to live up to the new love he had come to establish. He steeled them against future persecutions. He consoled them by foretelling that they would experience a new kind of joy after his resurrection. And then, as if inviting the disciples to enter into his own personal feelings, he said:

"If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I." (Jn14,28)

It is as if Jesus is telling them: "Going back to my Father fills me with immense joy. For that is where I have my home. Everything I have I received from my Father. My greatest happiness is being with him and sharing his company. The whole purpose of my existence is to live for him. If you love me you will understand what I am saying. Then you will share my joy and be genuinely as happy as I am that I am on my way back to the Father".

Jesus' statement, "the Father is greater than I", became a key argument in the Arian denial of Jesus' divinity. at the Council of Nicea (325AD)It has caused headaches and scruples to theologians ever since. Ingenious explanations were invented to take away its sting. Jesus is supposed to have spoken figuratively. Or, he was speaking from point of view of his human nature. Or, the Father is greater only in certain respects, and so on. Such reasonings are neither convincing nor to the point. Jesus' conviction that his Father is greater than himself is of pivotal importance in John's Gospel. It should be faced squarely, not swept under a theological carpet.

The Father, whom Jesus in one text calls "my God" (Jn20,17), is indeed the central figure in John's Gospel. Everything turns round the Father: everything begins with him and ends with him. Whereas the title "God" (theos) occurs seventy-three times, the appellation "Father" recurs in John's Gospel 115 times. How is the Father pre-eminent? What does this mean to us? These are the questions we will try to answer in this chapter.

Before we tackle these questions, however, it may be good to reflect a little on the imagery of fatherhood itself. I realise that some people are put off, from the start, because of its unfortunate connotations. Some may not have had the experience of a loving father, and so the image carries with it feelngs of fear or disgust. For others, the image of God as a male parent has assumed almost symbolic proportions: expressing as it does for them the male domination in society and religion they have come to abhor.

It is good to remember that calling God “Father” is no more than an image. God can equally well be thought of as a mother, as we find done in Scripture (Is 49, 15; 1 Pet 1, 23 2, 3) and in the tradition of the Church (Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Anselm, Juliana of Norwich, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, to mention but a few). In fact, certain functions attributed to God in johannine theology fit much better the image of God as a mother than a father, as I will show later.

For our general discussion throughout the following chapters we will retain the image of fatherhood for two reasons. First of all, we then remain closer to the original thinking of the Evangelist and of Jesus himself. Secondly, simplicity demands this approach. Mixing in terminology of motherhood would add an unnecessary complication to theological reflections that are intricate enough on their own. But in the last chapter of this section on “The Father” we will see that John’s presentation of God requires openness both to maternal and paternal forms of religion.

Titles for God

Calling God "Father" was something distinctive in Jesus' own spirituality and theology. God's fatherhood is not an Old Testament theme. In ancient texts we find traces of the Canaanitic practice of calling EL the "Father of the Gods" (Dt 32,6-9; Ps 82,6-7; Jer 2,26-27). The same practice is not found in Israel. Sometimes the inspired authors may speak of Yahweh as of a father, by way of comparison; they do not directly characterise him as "father" (Dt 8,5; Ps 103,13; Prov 3,12; Hos 1,10; 11,1; etc.). This can be seen clearly in the Fsalms. Addressing God as Father is completely absent, while so many other appellations abound. The exclamation, "You are our father!" in Trito-Isaiah (Is 63,15-16; 64.8) is so striking precisely because it is so unusual. From the context it becomes clear that here, too, the use of the term is metaphorical. Yahweh should have pity, for not even Abraham and Jacob disown their own progeny.

Addressing God as Father had come into Jewish prayers at Jesus' time. But even so, its use remained very restricted. As a safeguard against the unwanted connotations of earthly fatherhood, the title was only used in larger compounds: "Our Father" (meaning "Father of our whole nation") and "Father in the heavens" to distinguish him from "fathers on earth". Underlying such expressions was still a lingering Old Testament fear that calling God "Father" may make one lose sight of his holiness. The overwhelming stress in divine titulature was on God's omnipotence, other-worldliness, royal dignity, power, sheer unnameability, so that a true filial devotion could not easily arise.

Jesus' innovation consisted in applying the homely term "Daddy" to God. This was so startlingly new and unusual, that the New Testament has preserved it for us even in its original form: "Abbe" (Mk 14,36; Gal 4,6; Rom 8,15). Jesus applied to God without inhibition an everyday word used by children when speaking to their father. Neither did he do so on isolated occasions only. Scholars are convinced it was a consistent trait of Jesus' praying and preaching.(1)

Jesus filled the image of God as Father with people's everyday experiences of parental love and care. God is a merciful father who is even kind and understanding to his ungrateful and selfish children (Lk 6,35-36). God will hide his plans from wise and presumptuous people, but reveal them to those who approach him as confident children (Lk 10,21). Even on earth a father will not give his child a snake if he asks for a fish or a scorpion if he wants an egg. God is much better than the fathers we know on earth (Lk 11,11-13). Will children of a loving father be worried about what to eat or drink, or whether they will have clothes? Why then, should we be anxious? Our Father knows that we need these things (Lk 12,30). God is like a forgiving father who longs for his wayward child to return and who gives us such a hearty welcome when we do (Lk 15,11-32). God is more concerned and loving than any human father we know or could imagine!

At the same time Jesus attributes to the Father the authority and control earthly fathers exercised in their households. The Father takes the ultimate decisions. He reveals Jesus' messiahship to Peter Mt 16,17). He determines who will sit at Jesus' right hand or left hand (Mt 20,23). Only the Father knows when he will bring about the last judgement; not even the Son knows this (Mk 13,32). In fact, although Jesus will act as judge on that day, he will do so on behalf of his Father who remains the ultimate judge (Mt 25,34). The verdict will depend on Jesus'accusing or defending a person before his Father (Mt 10,32-33). It is the Father who will give the final pardon (Mt 18,35). The all-determining factor in this world is the Father's will (Mt 10,29; 18,14). Therefore, those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7,21). They are only considered by Jesus to be "brother, sister or mother " (Mt 12,50). For Jesus, too, always does the will of his Father (Mt 26,39-42).

This then is the God Jesus preached. In everything he is modelled on people's experience of their father. God is the person one can fully entrust oneself to. He is also to be obeyed in everything with true filial devotion. And, although Jesus holds a special relationship to his Father, he characterises his own position as "Son" in similar terms. He trusts his Father fully. He obeys his will in everything.

The Father means everything

As usual, John remained faithful to Jesus' original inspiration. If anything, he intensified and deepened whatever Jesus taught about his Father. While the Synoptic Gospels still retain the occasional Jewish appellation, "Our Father" or "Father in heaven", John has no mention of this at all. Similarly, not once do we find in John, in spite of his many Hellenistic contacts, the expression "Father of all" so popular in Hellenism.(2) John clearly opted for Jesus' own terms. He uses "God" (ho theos) and "the Father" (ho pater).

As in Jesus' teaching. John recognises the Father's love (3,35; 17,24; etc.) and the Father's absolute authority (Jn 4,34; 5,30; 6,38-40; etc.) as the two realities that ultimately explain the whole process of salvation. It was Jesus' task to reveal and execute what the Father had decided in his infinite love..Jesus consequently depends on his Father in all he does. For he is only the ambassador, the one sent. The Father is the person with whom everything originates (Jn 6,57; 8,16; 10,36; 12,49; 14,24 etc.).

This pre-eminence of the Father is expressed by John so often and in so many ways, that we may not need to enumerate them fully here. A few examples may suffice. Jesus never works on his own. His whole mission was a task entrusted to him by the Father (Jn17,4). It is only in the Father's name that he performs the works he does (Jn10,25). In fact, he can call them"the works from the Father" (Jn10,32) or "the works of the Father" (Jn10,37-38). Similarly, everything Jesus says, he says on his Father's authority (Jn7,17-18). The words he speaks are his Father's words (Jn14,24), because he only speaks as someone taught by the Father (Jn8,28); as someone who has been commanded by his Father what to say (Jn12,49). In other words: in everything Jesus says and does, we should recognise the Father speaking and acting. Jesus is always and everywhere "turned towards the Father" (Jn1,18) (3)

Jesus received everything he had from his Father. From all eternity the Father gave him glory and love (Jn17,24; 8,54). The Father gives him the power to do miracles (Jn5,36), authority over life and death (Jn5,21-26), judicial competence (Jn5,22) and divine honour (Jn5,23; 12,26). Jesus' disciples were his Father's gift to him (Jn6,37; 10,29). The Father had given him all things (13,3). Jesus could rightly say that he owed everything to his Father (Jn17,9-10). And, in the words of Ps 42/43, Jesus thirsted and longed throughout his life to see again the face of his Father.(4)


The traditional Trinitarian formulation that evolved after centuries of theological discussion, speaks of the equality between the Father and the Son. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Spirit is God. Father, Son and Spirit are equal in divinity, but distinct from one another through unique relationships. It is a formula of faith, valid in its own right, and unavoidable, perhaps, as a means of combatting misunderstandings and heresies.

But we should not project this Trinitarian formula back into John's Gospel. John's own way of speaking is much closer to Jesus' own. For John Jesus is neither equal to the Father nor God (ho theos),108 The Father begins everything, gives everything, decides everything. The Father, therefore, is greater than Jesus (Jn14,28), just as he can be said to be greater than all (Jn10,29). Even though Jesus is the perfect image of the Father and closely united to him as we shall see later, he owes all to his Father. The Father stands first and last as the centre around whom everything happens.

I find the Johannine approach very useful when explaining our Christian faith to those who are not Christian. Like John's readers they have a vague notion about God but will not be mentally prepared to accept such an abstract and difficult notion as the Trinity. What they may be ready to accept is that Jesus was an extraordinary person who taught us valuable things about God. The Fatherhood of God, both his loving care and his parenta1 authority. provide a far clearer image of God than they may ever have had. In these early stages it is helpful to keep the focus firmly on the Father. Discovering that God can rightly be considered as a personal power, who knows us, loves us and fulfills our ultimate destiny, is no small step forward. By teaching that God is a father, Jesus gave him a heart and a face.

But also, our own spirituality will be lopsided if we don't give the Father the pre-eminence that is his due. For many Christians Jesus is the only true God. The Father, though believed in a vague sort of way, does not really play an active part in their lives. He is the far and unknown God, aloof from one's everyday world. Jesus is then the person one prays to, the centre of all one's devotion. Granted that the conscious experience of Jesus is a valid element in our Christian life,our Christian life, this exclusive stress on Jesus is a distinct impovershment of our Christian faith.

The liturgical practice of addressing prayers to the Father through Jesus is a powerful reminder that the Church's traditional devotion was Father-centred. The Father is the most original origin, the most final destiny of all that exists. He is the one firm point of reference that gives meaning to everything else. He is the source we can relate everything to, the unshakable principle that holds everything together. Moreover, this focal point of all reality is a Person; not a blind force, but someone who knows and loves us. Our most fundamental act of religion is to acknowledge that truth. Helping us discover this truth is the first grace we receive from Jesus, our guide.

For reflection. Discovering the Father

God is my Father. This is a fundamental image for my Christian consciousness. It is a way of looking at God that was very dear to Jesus. But what does it mean to me? Before we start this meditation we could perhaps read Jn 17,1-26. It contains Jesus' prayer before his passion, the prayer in which he expresses so movingly his total belonging to his Father.

What does the word "Father" mean to me from my own experience? Do I love my own father? What do I remember of my earliest dealings with him at home? Or with some other person who took his place?

What do I expect the ideal"father" to be like? Should he be strong and firm, or gentle and kind? What qualities would I ascribe to a model father?

When we speak of God as our Father, what image do I have in my mind? Do I consider him as a venerable o1d person? Do I think of his omnipotence and his absolute rule? What attracts me most in him as father?

Does Jesus' use of "father" come natural to me or do I need to unlearn awkward associations that it evokes?

Talk about this to God. Tell him in what way you would like to make Jesus' image of him your own.

Foot Notes

1. J. JEREMIAS, The Central Message of the New Testament, SCM, London 1965 pp.9-30. Abba, Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Gottingen 1966, pp.15-67.

2. It originated in Plato's writings (e g Tim 28c) and is frequently found with the Gnostics (e.g. IRENAEUS, Adv. Haer. I 30.1) and early Fathers (1 Clem 35,3; JUSTINUS, Apol 10,6; Dial 7,3; etc.).

3. F. J. MOLONEY, "John 1:18: 'In the Bosom of' or 'Turned towards the Father'?", Australian Biblical Review 31 (1983) 63-71.

4.. Psalm 42/43 influenced many passages of John's Gospel (12,27; 13,21; 11,33.35.38; 14,1-9.27). It expressed Jesus' feelings as the righteous sufferer; and also the prayer of the departing revealer longing for the abode of God. J. BEUTLER, "Psalm 42/43 im Johannesevangelium", New Testament Studies 25 (1978) 33-57; E. D. FREED, Psalm 42/43 in John's Gospel", New Testament Studies 29 (1983) 62-73.

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