Last Saturday (20th Week of the Year) featured a Gospel in which the Lord cautions us on the use and collection of titles. Speaking of the religious authorities of His day, Jesus lamented,
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. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Mat 23:6-12).
Jesus is not trying to banish words from our vocabulary. Neither is He dismissive of all titles. Elsewhere Jesus says, You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am (John 13:13). To reduce these Gospels to a dismissal of the use of titles is to miss the point. The deeper points are the need for humility and the understanding that titles are a summons to serve.
In another Gospel (Luke 9), after a dispute arose among the Apostles about who was the greatest, Jesus placed a child in their midst and said, in effect, “Here is the greatest. Now be sure to honor this greatest one with service and care.” Jesus also seems to imply that this is how the Father sees all of us.
It really is a simple lesson, so simple that we usually miss it entirely: For all our coveted titles, honors, and distinctions, our greatest title is “Beloved Child of God.”
Understanding our status as a child is the true picture of greatness, not being a “big cheese.” To be humble and to understand the dignity of humility is what God calls great.
We Catholics (and especially we Catholic clergy) love our distinctions and honorifics: Your Excellency, Your Eminence, Your Grace, Your Holiness, Pontifex Maximus, Reverend, Very Reverend, Right Reverend, Reverend Father, etc. You name it, we’ve got it!
Lay people have their titles too: Worthy Grand Knight, Past Grand Knight, Prefect, Chairman, etc.
When I was Dean, my own full title was this mouthful: The Very Reverend Monsignor Charles Evans Pope, M. Div., M.A. And you might want to add “Big Mouth Blogger,” too!
Do you want to know what God calls me? “Carlitos” (Little Charlie). Regardless of the “exalted” status I attain, to God I am just a little boy whom He dares not let out of His sight lest I run into trouble. Whatever my titles (and I am grateful for every bit of graciousness extended to me), I am no more baptized than any other Christian, and my greatest title is “Child of God.”
The Pope has authority, is deserving of our respect, and rightly has titles accorded him. But he is no more baptized that you or I. Before God, we are accorded this highest and equal dignity: God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved (cf Col 3:19). We are just his little children. This is our greatest dignity, our greatest title.
Why, you may ask, do I say, “little children”? Because Jesus did—and not just in this Gospel, but elsewhere as well. There is a tender moment when, after His resurrection, the Lord Jesus stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and called out to grown men, “Little children, have you caught anything?” The Greek word used is Παιδία (padia) meaning little children or infants. And while this diminutive is surely used affectionately, there is little doubt that this is how God likely sees us.
We easily forget our beloved status before God and engage in debates about our relative (lesser) status here in this world. We get argue about who is the greatest, who gets to do what, and who gets which honors. We debate the rules surrounding roles: why women can’t be priests, who is the head of the household, and what leadership positions are open to whom.
Setting aside our greatest dignity, we focus on lesser distinctions.
To be sure there are distinctions and offices, some of them from God. Scripture says,
And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts (1 Cor 12:28-31).
But note that any distinctions, even those from God Himself, do not affect our dignity, because that is something we all have by baptism. Before any other title, role, or honor, our greatest title and dignity is “Child of God and member of the Body of Christ.”
Regarding our dignity, Scripture says,
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Here there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29).
St. Paul is not denying distinctions. Of course there is male and female. But distinctions do not overrule our common and fundamental dignity as children of God.
Do we really understand this? Too often, we do not. And thus in an instant we’re back into debates about who is greatest, who gets to do what, and who is in charge.
St. Augustine beautifully underscored how distinctions do not affect dignity when he said, “For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian.” To my own parishioners I have sometimes built on this quote and said, “For you I am a pastor, with you I am your brother, from you I am your son.”
Distinctions should not be confused with dignity. Our greatest dignity and title is something we share, something given to us by God not by man: “Child of God.” It’s your greatest title. This is a simple teaching by Jesus that is often overlooked.
I will conclude with a humorous story:
One day a powerful and influential Cardinal Archbishop of a large city was in Jerusalem strolling with his priest secretary in the market. He came upon a vendor who cried out, “You, sir! Come here and I’ll give you a fair deal!” The secretary, annoyed at the vendor’s use of the lesser title “sir” said to him, “Do you know who this is?” “No,” replied the vendor. The priest said, “This is His Eminence Cardinal Archbishop so-and-so.” “Really?” answered the vendor, “Well, I’ll still give you a fair deal!”
Our distinctions do not affect our fundamental dignity.
Here is how God sees us: