The Father God who is no God-Father

In the course of a family household, there are characteristically two most demanding, most rewarding relationships: the relationship of marital partners and the relationship of parent and child. (A third derivative demanding and rewarding relationship is that between siblings.) In Fences, the groundbreaking and oft-adapted play by August Wilson, Troy is the main character. He is a steady, reliable Black garbage collector who does his work every day, loves his family, and seeks out chances for small gains. In the play, Troy has a tangle with both of these primary relationships. (While we examine Troy’s role as a father, deepening engagement with scriptural images of God as father, we also must hear the clarion call to see the witness of God’s mothering activity of Israel across the Bible.)

On the one hand, Troy is deeply in love with and attentive to Rose, his steadfast second wife. In the course of the play, however, Troy runs aground in his relationship with Rose by engaging in a sexual relationship outside his marriage. In that relationship, moreover, Troy produces a child who eventually must be cared for by Rose.

On the other hand, Troy has two sons. His older son, Lyons, comes and goes, borrows money from his father and pays it back. Troy eventually is stern with Lyons and says that he will no longer loan him more money. My interest, however, is in Troy’s relationship with his second son, Cory. Cory is a much younger son who is ambitious to be an athlete but is quite unwilling to do any of the work chores that Troy expects of him. Troy invites Cory to reflect on why Troy has so reliably cared for him and given him all he has needed in his growing-up years.

Troy and Cory discuss the fact that Troy has been an unfailingly good provider for Cory. Cory speculates about Troy’s motivation for such care and provision:

‘Cause you like me.

In response Troy delivers a reflection about his duty as a father:

It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house…sleep you behind on my bedclothes…fill you belly with my food…cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it‘s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you! Let’s get this straight right here…before it go along any further…I ain’t got to like you. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owe me. I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life! Me and your mama worked that out between us. And liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain. Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you. You understand what I’m saying, boy? (p. 38)

When he finishes, Troy dismisses Cory to go on down to work. Cory, determined to play football, will not go to work. He has been brought to understand, nonetheless, what it means to have a reliable father and what it means to be on the receiving end of such fatherly attentiveness.

Later on, the father and son clash again. In his teenage impudence, Cory mocks his father:

You ain’t got to worry about what I got.

In response, Troy delivers his harsh dismissal of his son:

You right! You one hundred percent right! I done spent the last seventeen years worrying about what you got. Now it’s your turn, see? I’ll tell you what to do. You grown…we done established that. You a man. Now, let’s see you act like one. Turn your behind around and walk out this yard. And when you get out there in the alley…you can forget about this house. See? Cause this is my house. You go on and be a man and get your own house. You can forget about this. ‘Cause this is mine. You go on and get yours cause I’m through with doing for you (p. 86).

Cory’s face-saving is pitiful:

You ain’t never gave me nothing! You ain’t never done nothing but hold me back.

Thus the sad dance of father and son who are so deeply tied together, both unable to manage the strain of growing up and the liminal stage of quasi-independence.

Wilson’s rendering of father and son inescapably got me thinking about the way in which the Bible utilizes the imagery of “father” in its articulation of God. This scriptural material is rich and dense, and moves into depths well below any simplistic piety. Here I will treat only a few aspects of the rich imagery.

Quite without any warning or expectation, the metaphor emerges on the lips of YHWH in the Exodus narrative:

Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” (Exodus 4:22)

YHWH takes Israel as “firstborn son” with all the privileges and expectations of that role. The father, moreover, wills that his firstborn son, yet in slavery, should be free to “worship me.” The imagery is thick; sonship is clearly linked to both emancipation and allegiance to YHWH as father. The gift of emancipation and the reality of allegiance to YHWH cannot be separated. Pharaoh’s refusal of YHWH’s request is promptly a warrant for the slaughter of Pharaoh’s firstborn son and his heir apparent (v. 23). These verses set in motion the rich imagery of the metaphor for what follows in the text.

The eruptive formulation of father and son in Exodus 4:22-23 evokes the prophetic allusion in Hosea 11:1-9. Here as well, Israel is “my son” called out of Egypt. This text in Hosea is one of the most important texts for our study; it participates fully in the drama of fatherhood and sonship. In vv. 1-4 YHWH reminisces about the wondrous time early on when son Israel was learning to walk and needing to be fed. The words portray affectionate intimacy concerning a time of innocent dependence.

But then in vv. 5-7, the beloved baby son has grown in a way that evokes the father’s rage. We are not told why the father rages, except that the son “was bent on turning from me.” Perhaps the words mark a surging independence of adolescence and will to be free from fatherly restraints, thus a parallel to Cory’s ongoing dispute with Troy in Fences. In any case the father is not only disappointed but is furious and willing to leave the son to the sorry future he has unwittingly chosen in his recalcitrant autonomy. The shift from affection in vv. 1-4 to fury in 5-7 is not hard to believe, when we reflect on the crisis evoked by the son’s chosen autonomy.

But then the father pauses (vv. 8-9). The father reflects on how it is with his son. The father does an emotional U-turn from verses 5-7. The four rhetorical questions of verse 8 imagine that the upheaval in the father (“heart recoils”) is not unlike the quaking of Sodom and Gomorrah (that is, Admah and Zeboiim; see Genesis 19:25). The same verb (hpk; “overthrow, recoil”) occurs in both texts. The self-critical questions lead to fresh self-awareness and resolve by the father. The outcome of this reflection by the father is that the father experiences a wave of compassion for his wayward son. The resolve of verse 9 is that the father retreats from the rage of verses 5-7 (albeit a fully merited rage), remembers what he intends to be as the father God who will not act like a human father who too easily ends in rage. YHWH will not be like Troy! The fathering God met in the Scriptures will return to love—slow to anger, full of mercy, and abounding in steadfast love. We may conclude that Hosea 11:1-9 enunciates a decisive moment in the self-understanding of YHWH as father. His son’s waywardness had pushed the father to destructive rage; this reflective moment, however, permitted the father to make a different kind of response.

Eventually we arrive at the dread post-exilic days when Israel is bereft of possibility. A segment of Israel alienated from the tradition can pray as it acknowledges its dire circumstance and its desperate need:

For you are our father,
though Abraham does not know us
and Israel does not acknowledge us;
You, O Lord, are our father,
our Redeemer from of old is your name (Isaiah 63:16).

The reference to “redeemer” surely recalls the Exodus emancipation. That is who YHWH is and how YHWH has acted as Israel’s delivering father. The company that speaks here looks back even behind the tradition of Abraham. Behind and before Abraham, there is father-YHWH. This is “our redeemer” “from of old,” that is, at least since the Exodus. Israel has no alternative but to trust finally in the fatherliness of YHWH who is a sure protector and rescuer. This is the plea of those who must now rely on the goodness of the father. This address in 63:16 leads to the desperate petition of 64:8-9. In a mix of images (father, potter) Israel understands that its life is completely given by and dependent upon YHWH. That dependence and reliance become the ground for the petition in verse 64:9 with three imperative verbs:

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people (64:8-9).

What follows in verses 10-11 make the situation as urgent and grim as could possibly be for the creator God. The petition ends with two desperate questions:

After all this,

will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silence, and punish us so severely? (64:12)

In its plea Israel finds it impossible to imagine that in this circumstance YHWH will be restrained or silent. Everything for Israel’s wellbeing and future depends upon the father-potter and the willingness of the father to intervene. But then, that has been so since the ancient days of the Exodus. In its good times son-Israel can imagine its autonomy and self-sufficiency, not unlike Cory. In desperate times Israel knows better, something Cory still has to learn in his future.

The God

who called Israel into being in Egypt, who moved from anger to compassion in Hosea, and who is addressed in urgent petition in Isaiah,

is the God who reemerges in the parable of Jesus. The triad of parables (sheep, coin, son) in Luke 15 is in response to the dismissive mockery of the Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees and scribes lived in a closed totalism of religious certitude. They saw that Jesus’ work refused to remain in their cozy totalism, because he welcomed and ate with those they had dismissed as ineligible. Each of these parables concerns a rejected member of a collective, a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

The father inescapably had two sons, not unlike Troy. One of Troy’s sons had moved on, managing his independence in fragile ways. One of the sons in the family of Luke 15 had not moved on, but he had accepted familial responsibility and fully understood his duties and his prospects. The other son in the parable is not unlike Cory. He imagined a life of self-indulgent ease and success. We are not told how it worked out for Cory. It did not work out for the son in the parable, as we get to see him to the end. We can imagine that Cory, sometime later, had to come back home in need, but we do not know how Troy might have responded to such a return. There is some reason to expect that Troy might have softened to his wayward son in need. But we do know about this other father, the one featured in the parable.

This father in the parable, the one who had designated his son in Egypt and had fought through to compassion, was on the lookout for his son. He expected him back in his need. He was prepared to receive him with a generous welcome:

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;

he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).

The son had no grounds for such a reception and was prepared to grovel before his father. But the father interrupted the son’s prepared speech of groveling. The father’s interruption of the son led to a gracious, celebrative homecoming with no questions asked, no explanations required, and no scores to be settled:

This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (v. 24)!

And just so that everyone, including the older son, could understand, the father reiterates the new beginning with his wayward son:

This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found

(Luke 15:32).

Imagine! It is to this father, the one to whom Moses, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jesus bear witness, that we dare to pray: Our father! Our father (who is in heaven), that is, not a father defined by the quid pro quo calculus of Pharaoh.

It is to this father that we dare to pray:

from this father we ask forgiveness; from this father we hope for daily bread that we cannot produce ourselves; from this father we anticipate protection from evil.

We pray in such a way to this father, even as we acknowledge him to be potter as we are clay, the creator to whom belongs all the governance of the kingdom, all the power of creation, all the glory of our grateful world.

To this father belong all the kingdom, the power, and the glory!

This God is no pushover. This God is no good buddy suburban dad, but the one who presides over our life with dignity and gravitas. It turns out that both sons must come to terms with a household governed by the gracious will of the father. Troy, of course, does not reason that far. Nor do any of our earthly fathers! It is for that reason that after we know the graciousness (or capriciousness) of our earthly fathers, we are still left in awe before the father-God who does “so much more!” (Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 11:11-13). This long-term sketch of God as father delivers to us a reliable world governed by generous compassion. It only requires us to “come to ourselves” and come home (Luke 15:17), away from any other life that we may have “squandered” (Luke 15:13). We may have squandered it in self-indulgence. Or we may have squandered it in fear and parsimony. Either way, we squander and then are stunned by this contrasting welcome of generous compassion. We may learn a great deal from the life-story of Troy. There is much more to be said beyond Troy’s vexed narrative. It is no wonder that the final lines of Wilson’s play must focus on the word and action of Gabriel.

Troy, you ready? You ready, Troy. I’m gonna tell St. Peter to open the gates. You get ready now. (Gabriel blows and sings and dances.) That’s the way to go! (pp. 100-101)

Wilson takes Troy out of his normal habitat into a zone of unimaginable wellbeing. That is what the father does for the son in the parable. It is not escapism, but a chance for an alternative life. The invitation of Gabriel to Troy sounds not unlike an arrival “with Abraham” (Luke 16:22).

Now a challenge: This rendition of God as father is cast in generous terms, but nonetheless in patriarchal imagery. This sketch, I suggest, invites us in our present circumstance to construct a parallel rendition of the mother God who “comforts” (Isaiah 65:13), and who summons to adulthood. It is my hope that some reader will take on this task and so bring to fresh fruition the imagining of scripture.

This article first appeared on Church Anew