“Call No Man Father”

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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This Sunday’s gospel provides us an opportunity to do a little practical apologetics. Apologetics is a word coming from the Greek apologia which means “to give an explanation.” It is the word St. Peter uses when he instructs the faithful to “always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you, with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pt 3:15). When someone engages in apologetics, the goal is to explain some aspect of our faith, or to clear away misconceptions. The gentleness and reverence St. Peter calls for is key. Some people have a distaste for apologetics because they associate it with arguing about religion.  True apologetics is not about having arguments or winning debates. It is about removing obstacles to faith and helping people better understand our teachings and practices.

It is no secret that Protestants disagree with Catholics about many things; otherwise there wouldn’t be Protestants. We have major theological differences about the nature of the Church, the nature of the sacraments, the role of scripture and how  salvation is achieved. These are all very important issues that high-level theologians on both sides often discuss. When done well, these discussions lead to a greater understanding of the fundamentals of our faith. For example, in 1997, the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation issued a joint document on the meaning of justification.

But there are other matters, of much less import than the issue of salvation, that some non-Catholics tend to get hung up on. Things like why does the Catholic Church have so many statues and stained glass windows, when God forbids us to make images in the Ten Commandments? (He doesn’t). Or why do Catholics worship Mary and the saints? (We don’t). Or — and this brings us to this Sunday’s gospel — why do Catholics call their priests “father” when Jesus forbids us to call anyone but God “Father?”

Could you answer this question if you were asked? 

Here is the relevant portion of Matthew’s gospel:

They [the scribes and Pharisees] love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’ [teacher].
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Seems pretty clear, right? Jesus says “call no one on earth your father,” meaning Catholics are wrong. Right? Not so fast.

A literalist reading of the gospel might suggest we shouldn’t call priests “Father.” But it would be wrong. First, we have to ascertain whether Jesus was indeed speaking literally. Remember, Jesus is not above using exaggeration to get His point across. Elsewhere in the gospel, He tells people that if their hand causes them to sin, they should cut it off, because it is better to go into heaven with one hand than to go to hell with two hands (Mt 5:30)! So should Christians start hacking off limbs? Of course not. No one, either at the time or now, assumes Jesus to be speaking literally. Our Lord is making a point about the seriousness of sin by using hyperbole — an intentionally exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally.

In reality, no one believes Jesus is speaking literally in this Sunday’s gospel passage, either — not even those who say the Catholic Church is wrong to call our priests “father.” If we did take Jesus literally, we would not be allowed to call our male biological parent “father,” either. Nor would we be able to call our teachers “teacher” or “doctor” (which comes from the Latin word for teacher). Nor would we be able to address anyone by the title of “Mister,” which is just another form of the word “master.” But no one is suggesting Jesus has a problem with any of these things. So no one is really taking Jesus literally here.

Perhaps Jesus just doesn’t want us calling with with spiritual authority “father.” Well, we would still have a problem there. The Bible is full of examples of people being called spiritual fathers. The patriarch Joseph talks about how God made him a father to Pharaoh (Gen 45:8). Job talks about being “a father to the poor” because he helped those less fortunate than he (Job 29:16). God says He will make Eliakim “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Is 22:20-21). Elisha calls the prophet Elijah “father” (2 Kgs 2:12). Later, Elisha himself is called “father” by the King of Israel (2 Kgs 6:21).

This is not just an Old Testament practice. The New Testament writers continue to call ancient patriarchs by the title of “father,” including Abraham (Acts 7:2) and Isaac (Rom 9:10). The Apostles also referred to themselves as spiritual fathers, most famously Paul. Paul speaks of those he helped form in the faith as his “children” (including Timothy and Titus). Most famously he wrote to the Corinthians that “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15).  In other words, if the Catholic Church is wrong to call priests “father,” then the Apostles were wrong, too.

So What Did Jesus Mean?

It’s pretty clear that no one at the time understood Jesus to mean that we literally couldn’t call anyone father, teacher or master. And we’d be wrong to take Jesus’ words hyper-literally now. It’s OK to call people father, teacher, doctor, mister or master.

But that leaves us with a question — what does Jesus mean? If Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point, what is that point?

Jesus is talking about the scribes and the Pharisees — those who had spiritual authority over the Jews. He is calling them out for being prideful. Jesus has no problem with their authority. In fact, He tells people they should obey their commands. But these spiritual fathers have a problem. They love taking places of honor. They love being addressed by their titles. “They perform all their works to be seen,” Jesus says. Jesus never says there is anything wrong with honoring those in authority. Jesus never says there is anything wrong with having a title. What Jesus says is wrong is their pride. They think too much of themselves. They forget that their authority is not their own. Everything they possess is given to them by God.

Jesus reminds them — and us — of the source of all authority. God is our only Master. God is our only Teacher. And God is our only Father, in the sense that all authority comes ultimately from God. We call our human fathers by that name because in their fatherhood they resemble God, the Father of Creation. Teachers are good teachers insofar as they teach truth, and God is the author of Truth. All authority on earth comes ultimately from God, and woe be to us if we forget that.

There is a special caution in this gospel reading for any in positions of authority over others. There is a danger of getting so high-and-mighty you start to think you are the source of your own authority. This happened to the scribes and the Pharisees, so Jesus took them down a notch. This passage ends with a call for humility, especially among leadership: “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Why Do We Call Priests “Father?”

So why do we call our priests “Father?” Don’t they run the risk of becoming prideful, like the Pharisees? Sure. But this is a risk any time one has a position of authority. I once had a nasty run in with a volunteer directing parking at an outdoor festival. A walkie-talkie and a neon vest are enough to send some people on a mean power trip! Whether we called our priests Father, Reverend, Pastor, or even just “Bob,” authority would still be a real temptation to pride for some. This is something all priests — and anyone in authority — must be mindful of.

The source of pride is in the heart, not the title. I’ve known priests who have refused to use any title and insist that their parishioners call them by their first name, like a buddy. Some of them have been very prideful. There is nothing magical about a title or lack of one that makes a person prideful or humble.

The tradition of calling priests “Father” is a venerable one, and can actually be a remedy to the sort of pride Jesus warns against if understood correctly. It reminds the priest of the type of authority he has been given; not the tyrannical authority of autocrat, but the loving authority of a father. His parishioners are not his subjects, but his family. His authority, like that of a parent, must be wielded with gentleness and love.

It reminds us, the faithful, of the responsibility the priest has over us. Just like our biological fathers give us life, so too does the priest. He transmits for us the life of grace, in the sacraments, most especially in the Eucharist and in Confession. And like our biological fathers, we should feel comfortable going to our priest for wisdom and guidance.

Sometimes priests fail in their fatherhood. The same is true of our biological fathers. We know when they fail as fathers (either spiritual or biological) when they don’t live up to the standard of our Heavenly Father, who is the source of Fatherhood. This is what Jesus means when He says, “You have but one Father in heaven.” Earthly fathers are called to share in God’s Fatherhood, not supplant it with their own.

This is quite a task, and one our spiritual and biological fathers can only accomplish by staying mindful of the fact that their fatherhood is not their own. They are given the privileged task of manifesting God’s eternal fatherhood to us here on earth. Pray for our priests — and our biological dads, too — that through God’s grace they may remain faithful to that call. And pray for those who have not had the blessing of good fatherly figures in their life, that they may come to know God as their faithful and loving Father.