If you read books on prayer -- such as Richard Foster's -- you may come across the idea that Jesus had invited us to call God Abba, which has been thought to convey a sense of intimacy. Much of this has come about because of the work of biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias, who had suggested that Jesus may have been unique in addressing God as Abba, and in doing so had suggested an intimacy not previously understood. As I began thinking of preaching on the Lord's Prayer this Lenten season that sentiment was present in my mind. Ah, I thought, I can talk about both divine immanence and divine transcendence in one sermon. But alas, I had remembered that this idea of intimacy had been challenged.
And indeed, it has been. But, as Marianne Meye Thompson notes in her book The Promise of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament -- Jeremias likely was misunderstood and misinterpreted -- she notes that while early on Jeremias had suggested that Jesus' use of Abba may have reflected a small child's address of one's father, he had retracted that idea. Instead, the Aramaic was the address given by an adult child to one's father. What is important to note as well, Marianne writes, is that in the gospels the word abba is found only once -- in Mark. Thus, in both accounts of the Lord's Prayer the word is the Greek pater. Besides, that, Jesus' use of the word abba for God likely was not out of character for Jews of his day.
So, what does it mean?
Luke and Matthew particularly reflect the view that to speak of God as Father means to point to the one who has called this community into being. As children of that one God, those within the community are obligated to each other. Ultimately, then, God's Fatherhood serves not as a model for the behavior of the human father, nor does it in some way give shape to the nuclear family. Rather, God's Fatherhood serves as the model for the life of the faithful community together. All are called to reflect God's mercy and love. No one reflects God's Fatherhood more or less by virtue of status, birth, gender, or class. All are to call on God, and only on God, as Father, and together all are family, brothers and sisters, children of God. (Promise of the Father, p. 115).
The idea of personal intimacy sounds appealing, but it's not likely what Jesus, nor the gospel writers had in mind!