When thinking about Jesus’ talk of God as father it is useful to examine how, in fact, he pictured God the Father. What did he mean by calling God ‘father’? To set this question in context it is helpful to consider the cultural stereotypes of father that were common in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. Authority and discipline (especially the disciplining of male children) were strong and frequent overtones of father-language in the ancient world. Pilch explained the cultural stereotypes of parents in the biblical world like this:
Clearly, the father is viewed as severe, stern and authoritarian; the mother is viewed as loving and compassionate. Children respect and fear the father but love the mother affectionately even after they are married.1
Such an understanding of the stern authoritarianism is almost absent2 from father-talk in the Gospels. Rather, in Jesus’ speech, fathers feed and clothe their children (Matt 6:26-32; Luke 11:1-2, 13; 12:30; John 6:32 cf. Luke 24:49; John 6:27); give gifts to both good and bad children (Matt 5:45); are forgiving rather than punishing (Matt 6:14-15; 18:35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:36 though the father does judge, in John 5:45; 8:16 but cf. 5:22); God as father deals with “infants” and “little ones” (Matt 11:25; 18:14; Luke 10:21). This divine “father” acts in ways which often fit the ancient world’s cultural stereotype of the mother more closely than they do the expectations of fatherly behaviour.
1 John J. Pilch, ‘Parenting,’ in John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina (eds.) Handbook of Biblical Social Values (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998), 147.
2 Mat 21:30f.; John 14:28 may be exceptions.