The 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.