(Year A, Sunday Closest to November 5, Gospel Reading Matthew 23:1-12)
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
– Matthew 23:8-12 (ESV)
When I first broached the subject of Holy Orders with my Dad, one of his first questions was about this passage. For people in traditions that do not call their pastors or ministers Father as a term of address, this passage can be one of the biggest reasons why they might not see eye-to-eye with an Anglican (or an Orthodox, or a Roman Catholic) understanding of the clerical offices. This is understandable, since on the surface the practice of calling our priests Father seems to be in direct opposition to Our Lord’s commands. Certainly, a reading of the passage in isolation seems to be speaking directly against us, as well as any other tradition that grants the appellation Father to their clergy.
To understand this Gospel lesson, especially in light of the Tradition we have received, which does call our priests Father, we have to first understand who Jesus is preaching against. Jesus addresses the “crowds and his disciples” telling them to listen to the Pharisees and scribes because they “sit on Moses’ seat,” but he admonishes them to not follow the example they set with their actions. These same “authorities” readily dish out opinions and nuanced interpretations of God’s Law as if they are part of the Law itself, but when the Law points back at them, they find numerous ways to excuse themselves from its precepts.
Similarly, they readily accept the honors of the crowds and those in their communities that recognize their academic prowess, but they do not faithfully execute the duties of the offices they are appointed to. Therefore, they are false rabbis, imposter teachers, and pretend fathers, because they do nothing to earn the titles they are readily receiving. If I go to a doctor, and they do nothing to treat my illness, are they really a doctor? They may have correct credentials, they may wear a lab coat or scrubs, and everyone in the office may refer to them as “Doctor” so-and-so, but unless they carry out the profession of being a physician, their credentials are worthless, their coat is empty, and their colleagues are carrying on a charade.
This is what Jesus is truly speaking against – it isn’t the act of calling someone “father” that is the error, otherwise I shouldn’t even acknowledge my own Dad as such, and then I would be in violation of the fifth commandment. And, as we have seen again and again, Jesus does not set aside or preach violation of the Law of Moses; instead he holds himself up as the fulfillment of Law and Prophets. Similarly, if the mere use of titles were at issue, then Jesus himself would seem to be violating his own words in other Gospel accounts when he calls Nicodemus a teacher of Israel. Therefore, what he is preaching against is the use – and acceptance! – of empty titles which heap up honor on one unworthy of it, and seek to stratify God’s people to create a second-class citizenry in the Kingdom.
Let’s contrast this with why we call our priests “father.” Is the appellation of “father” an empty one? In an ordered, God-centered relationship between priest and parishioner, not at all! The parishioner submits themselves to the authority at work in the priest, and seeks his counsel and blessing, like a child seeks the wisdom of his biological father, and hopes that he will approve of their actions and choices. When the parishioner neglects godly counsel, or scorns the teaching of the Church, upon turning back to the right path, they bring themselves to the priest and ask for reconciliation, just like a child who is estranged might seek to repair their relationship with their earthly father.
Note that I say, “authority at work in” and not “of” the priest: in a rightly ordered priest-parishioner relationship, the priest has no authority by virtue of himself. All authority is from God, and the priest is a human example of that authority. The Tradition of calling our priests “father” comes from St. Paul, who compared his bringing up the Church in Corinth as a father raising up children. The text where he does this (1 Corinthians 4:14-16) is part of a larger section which talks about the humility of the apostles, and how some took that humility for granted, or a sign that they were not to be followed. This is so very different from the circumstance that Jesus speaks against! The Pharisees allowed themselves to be called “rabbi” on the virtue of their station, not of their heart. The Godly priest allows himself to be called “father” in appreciation for the spiritual urging and encouragement he gives to his parishioners.
I encourage you to look in your own life: at how you present yourself to the world, how people relate to you. Do you live into the role you claim for yourself? When the people around you recognize you and show you appreciation and honor, do you rightly respond to it? If you are in a position of authority, do you acknowledge where that authority comes from? I pray that all of us would faithfully live out the roles we have been called to, express humility even as we accept praise from our peers, and that all in authority would acknowledge that it is God’s authority at work in us, and not our authority at work on others.
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.