On Straining out Gnats and Swallowing Camels, as Seen in a Persistent Biblical Debate

February 23 BlogThe teaching contained in the Gospel for yesterday (Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Lent) is one that is easy to miss by overanalyzing the details. Catholics are frequently questioned about the passage: Jesus says, “Call no man on earth your father.” That one line spurs a battle! On one side, Evangelicals stand poised to rebuke the Catholic practice of calling priests “Father,” and on the other are Catholics ready to defend the practice.

Yes, before the sentence is even fully uttered, many folks are locked and loaded. Let the debate begin!

It’s strangely ironic that such a debate springs forth from a Gospel reading that is about humility. While debates can be civil, they seldom display humility. This does not mean that there is no right answer to the issue; it’s more about the way we get to the answer: trying to score “gotcha” points and making sure that we win the debate.

But again, the irony of all this is that Matthew 23:1-12 is really about humility. It is not about banning words or titles like Rabbi, Teacher, Master, or Father. Rather, this Gospel passage is about the problem of pride and vainglory among the clergy, leaders, and those who follow them.

Sadly we would often rather debate the details than listen to the actual teaching. We tend to do this with a lot of things in life: we maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. As Jesus puts it, we like to strain out gnats while swallowing camels (cf. Matt 23:24).

Let’s examine this teaching about humility.

The Gospel begins with a salutary reminder to all those who are under authority that they consider to be less than perfect:

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.”

This reminder is for all of us: we are to obey lawful authority in all things that do not contradict God’s higher law. This is the case even if we do not like them, or they are not conservative or liberal enough for our tastes, or have moral flaws (real or perceived). Even Jesus submitted Himself to be judged by Caiaphas and Pilate. Although Jesus would eventually establish the New Covenant and the apostles would come to authority, for now they must learn humility through obedience to lawful authority, even though all lawful authority in this world is exercised by imperfect human beings. Humility through obedience is the essential point.

Jesus next proceeds to exhort humility in those who have authority:

… but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation “Rabbi.” 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.

Those in authority, especially within the Church, must first be humble servants. Their humility must begin by being obedient to the gospel they preach. They are to practice what they preach and to admit humbly that to do any less is sinful. They must pray humbly and do good works even when no one is looking, when no one can or will applaud them. They are not to seek the favor of men, whether through ostentatious acts or clothes, titles, or seats of honor. To the extent that they do, they incur sin through pride and vainglory.

The main point is humility. The Lord is not forbidding clothes, or seats of honor, or titles per se; rather, He forbids seeking after these things. Good works are obviously to be done. Prayers are to be done. Of course these are not forbidden! The point is that they are not to be “performed in order to be seen.”

It is not forbidden that there be seats of honor in worship and in public gatherings. People instinctively want to esteem leaders, invited guests, and honorees (e.g., a bride and groom or a person celebrating his birthday) with seats of honor or a place at the head table. But while seats are not forbidden, the “love of places of honor” is forbidden. Titles such as “Father,” “Reverend,” “Your Honor,” “Teacher,” and “Rabbi” are not banished either. People of every nation and tongue use titles to honor those who hold offices. What is banished is the “love” of these titles, either by the one having the title or the one bestowing the title. For indeed it sometimes happens that people bestow excessive titles and honorifics as a manifestation of a kind of communal pride; in exalting their leaders they are really exalting themselves.

Regarding the specific the term “Father” (some seem to single out that particular title and not Rabbi or Teacher), if Jesus’ purpose was to forbid the use of the word “father” in reference to human males why did the other New Testament authors do so? In the New Testament alone there are 195 uses of the word “father(s)” to refer to human males. Hence, it seems clear that interpreting this passage as an absolute banishment of the term “father” for anyone but God Himself is not supported by the practice evident in Scripture.

So once again, the point is humility. It is not the outright banishment of words, or seats of honor, or public praying, or the performance of good works. By engaging in endless debates about who is right or wrong in this or that practice, we risk missing the entire point of this Gospel reading. Our debates can too easily become about winning, with no hint of humility.

Don’t miss the point (humility) by straining out gnats and swallowing camels, by maximizing the minimum and minimizing the maximum.

8 Replies to “On Straining out Gnats and Swallowing Camels, as Seen in a Persistent Biblical Debate”

  1. It gets even worse when guys like Charlie call themselves “monsignor”….tell me,Chuck….you really think it’s ok for people to refer to you as “my lord”?…the English meaning of “monsignor”?…now take the log out of your own eye,hot shot..and don’t forget to eat the hell out of your arugula,sun dried tomato, and goat cheese salad

    1. Well people don’t mean “My Lord” Ask any Catholic if that is what they mean and they’ll look puzzled. You’re name “Mitchell” is from Michael which means “Who is like God” but 99% of people don’t know that and even if they do they don’t mean it when they call you that. Your other name Robbins is a patronymic form of the medieval male given name “Robin”, a diminutive of Robert, from the short form “Rob”, plus the hypocoristic suffix “-in”. Robert comes from the Old German “Hrodebert” meaning “fame-bright” But people don’t mean that when they call you that and don’t know the origin of your name.

      As for the rest of your comment, your violation of humility called for in the article is exceeded only by your lack of charity. So you get an F for missing Jesus’ main point and another F for missing his second commandment to love your neighbor and treat him as you would want to be treated.

      1. Just FYI, “Lord” is from the Old English hlafweard or literally a “loaf guardian”: the person in charge of protecting the food supply. When referring to Our Lord, the Old English uses Dryhten. So unless you insist on the title of “Mindrythen”, I’m not going to worry too much. 🙂

    2. How rude, Mr. Mitchell. Not an ounce of mercy should be given to you but I pray still that you be forgiven for disrespecting our priest. May GOD bless you and your family.

  2. Even in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, JESUS, HIMSELF used the word father Abraham. So what is wrong with calling our priests Father? Should I prohibit my kids to call me father? Absurd. Yes, JESUS meant something deeper than this and reason and commandment tell us we must honor our fathers and fathers must act as fathers worthy of honoring. In these times when fathers are unworthy in their zeal to accept fatherhood, this is what JESUS is referring to. GOD Bless you, Monsi. Men need to be men, nowadays. YHWH SHAMMAH!

  3. It’s hard to be a priest in this world. The titles Father or Monsignor makes one a more likely target than an object of veneration. My sympathies Monsignor.

  4. Most moderns, particularly modern feminists in a peculiarly vitriolic way, think that “father” is a term applied metaphorically to God because of some aspect of Him that parallels our experience of human fathers – generation (of the Son, or of the cosmos) apart from Himself. In fact, as our Savior makes evident, the only being who is truly a Father is God, and human fathers are called “father” by analogy to Him. Fatherhood is of the essence of God, it is something that most men receive from Him.

  5. Oh My Gosh, I second this Monsignor Pope and I am SO SORRY for this horrible disrespect you must withstand in so many of these comment boxes you see online more and more today that you can hardly believe what your reading,and what people say ( but to a PRIEST MONSIGNOR,!! May God forgive him. but what flawed me more was your clever, witty and charitable answer back! I must admit When I saw all the Fs I thought you were cursing at him! lol But what a excellent answer you gave Monsignor, Like when our Lord said, something like sly as a fox but gentle as a dove,? You nailed it!! Did I butcher that scripture? I think it makes the point I was so happy to read this article ( minus the rude comment) that my friend directed me to this because only the other morning we were given a lenten retreat by a Monsignor Priest and He asked if anyone had any questions at the end about anything? This was one question that I wanted to ask from the days reading but I thought it would embarrass Monsignor, Why do we call Priests Fathers when the Bible just told us not to? so when everyone left my friend and I went up to Monsignor quietly and asked him, He was happy to explain it, I like both explanations, It was explained to us that we should understood it as their is only ONE FATHER , OUR GOD in Heaven and we dont put everyone on the same level as OUR GOD IN HEAVEN, OUR ONE TRUE GOD, Simple enough to understand this, but also I love your understanding of it as well Monsignor when you read the whole passage, Our Lord is talking about Humility, but its hard to connect the dots I guess if you are not really schooled in theology! But I am so much happier now to understand this because whenever this reading comes up I am always at a loss! This is saying to do one thing and we are doing another! I am go glad you addressed this Monsignor! Thankyou! Go and enjoy that Salad,!! My mouth is watering just thinking of it!! You deserve it for having to withstand such nasty comments, when is all your trying to do is help people, I have seen you speak at the Seton homeschool conferences in VA and no flattery here, only humility, YOU are the best! Loved all your talks! Thanks for such clarity and simple understanding! and again I am so so sorry for the rude behavior from Mr, Mitchell ( whos name refers to ( who is like God?) ummmm Blessings, Linda AveMaria

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