The Gospel this Sunday is familiar to many Catholics (in a negative way) because many Protestants use the verse Call no one on earth your father, to assail the Catholic practice of calling priests “Father.” Never mind that the text also says that we should call no one on earth “teacher.” Never mind that the New Testament contains almost 200 uses of the word “father” to refer to earthly males. Apparently Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John along with Paul, Peter, and Stephen never got the memo banishing all use of the word in reference to anyone on earth.
However, to turn this into a Gospel about appropriate terminology is to miss its main point, which is to teach us about authority. This teaching is both beautiful and essential, especially in modern times when the notion of authority is so often misunderstood and maligned.
Before looking at Jesus’ teaching on authority it is good to be clear one point: While each of us is under authority, we also have authority. Whether it is as a parent, a supervisor at work, a community leader, a leader in the Church, or just because you’re older—you have authority.
Because we live in a culture that largely despises authority, we tend to think it is always the “other guy” who has authority and needs to be “put in his place.” Maybe it’s that pompous guy in the corner office, those nasty politicians, or the boorish and backward pastor. Look in the mirror! This Gospel isn’t just for “them,” it’s for you, too. As we explore this teaching on authority, remember that it applies to you and me just as much as to “them.”
Let’s look at the teaching in four stages.
The Tenure of Lawful Authority – Jesus says, The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you but do not follow their example.
Jesus teaches the disciples that for now they are to remain under the lawful authority of the Scribes and Pharisees. In the future, Jesus will fully send forth His Church and establish the authority of the Apostles themselves, but for now they are to follow lawful authority, just as Jesus will expect the Church to follow the lawful authority of the Apostles and their successors later on.
Nowhere in Scripture are Christians encouraged ridicule, resist, or overthrow lawful authority. The human tendency (especially evident in modern times) to be insubordinate to and disrespectful of lawful authority is neither encouraged nor supported in biblical teaching. Consider some of the following examples:
- Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Rom 13:1).
- Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men. (1 Peter 2:13).
- Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good (Titus 3:1).
- I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:1).
- Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (1 Peter 2:17).
- Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Matt 22:21).
- The Lord Jesus, indeed Scripture in general, upholds the proper need and place for authority. The modern tendency to celebrate rebellion and disrespect toward authority is clearly not supported by Scripture.
This tendency is exhibited throughout Western culture. Children are disrespectful to their parents, younger people to their elders, subordinates in the workplace to their supervisors, Catholics toward the Church hierarchy, and so forth.
One may argue that some who are in charge are poor leaders. Perhaps, but consider the authorities of ancient times: the Scribes, the Pharisees, and Herod, just to name a few. Yet still this teaching went forth. Others may say that authorities need to be corrected. Yes, at times they do; in those cases, a Christian should use means that are both respectful and nonviolent.
Vigorous political discourse is surely a feature and a genius of our modern democratic republic. However, too much of the discourse today strays into the hateful, toward personal attack and ridicule. Such extremes are unfit for Christians, who are called to speak the truth with both clarity and charity.
So in setting forth a teaching on authority, the Lord Jesus first establishes that there is authority and that (other things being equal) lawful authority is to be respected and obeyed. Although there are times when the example of those in authority should not be imitated (more on that in the next section), their lawful and moral directives are to be followed.
In cases in which you are under authority, pray, strive to cooperate, and when necessary correct with reverence.
In cases in which you have authority, do not be ashamed of it. Use it well, for the common good and to provide necessary direction and unity for those under your authority.
The Tyranny of Arrogant Authority – Jesus does acknowledge the burdensome and insensitive qualities of the leadership of that time. He says, Do not follow their example. For they preach but 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.
This is a sober assessment by Jesus of the problems of leadership in His day. They will have to answer to God for their tenure. Jesus holds them up as a kind of warning to the future leaders of His Church, who will one day have to render an account for their leadership. Do not follow their example, Jesus warns.
True authority exists to serve, not to crush or merely to exhibit its power. It exists to unite people around a common purpose and to direct people and resources to a good and focused end. It exists to help others to accomplish their tasks in a unified and directed way. Hence, we may ask the following questions of the exercise of authority:
- Does the exercise of authority make wings to lift a person up or is it a deadweight to drag him down?
- Does it help a person or haunt him?
- Does it carry him does he have to carry it?
- Does it bring joy to life or depression?
- Does it unite people around common goals or merely unite them in unproductive anger against authority?
- How would those under your authority answer these questions?
The Trappings of Self-Centered Authority – Jesus describes how the Scribes and Pharisees loved titles, honors, and ostentation: 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 the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and the salutation, “Rabbi.”
The Lord points out the following problems with self-centered authority:
- Their Actions Are Acted – Jesus often called them hypocrites, not as a slur but as a description. The word “hypocrite” comes from a Greek root meaning “actor.” An actor performs and plays his role only when there is an audience. He does so for money and applause. When the crowd is gone he stops acting because there would be no point; neither money nor applause would result. Some in authority forget the reason they have authority; they forget the goal to which it is directed. They care only about the praise that may increase their authority or build up their ego.
- They Parade their Piety – They want to be noticed as having authority. Rather than pointing to the end to which their authority is directed (in this case, God), they see the acknowledgement of their own authority as the proper end and desired goal.
- They Hunger for Honor – They seek the front seats. They want to be seen as having authority. They take the honor due those in authority personally, as directed to them, rather than directed to the office they hold.
- They Take after Titles – They crave the title itself for the honor they feel it brings them. A title is only good if the one bearing it does not disgrace it. Having a title is not so much an honor as a responsibility.
In the end, the poor example of the Scribes and Pharisees comes down to the fact that they used the “trappings” of authority for personal ends and glory, rather than for the ends to which they were intended: the glory of God, the serving of His people, and the common good and unity of all.
Leadership is not about trappings; it is about service and the glory of God.
The Truth of Christian Authority – The text says, Do not be called teacher (Rabbi) You have but one teacher. Do not be called Father, you have but one Father in heaven..Do not be called master, have but one master the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Who ever humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus emphasizes three fundamental things here, and I add a fourth.
- All authority is under the headship of God. In critiquing the use of terms like “teacher,” “master,” and “Rabbi,” Jesus is insisting that all teachers and “experts” must first be under the teaching and authority of God. All their teaching and “mastery” of any subject must be in conformity to, and submitted to the revealed truth of God. For someone to be worthy of the title “teacher,” “master,” or “Rabbi,” means that he is first submitted to what God teaches and reveals.
- All Fatherhood, all headship, is submitted to the Father and Lord of us all and reflects His Fatherhood. No one deserves the title “father” who does not first have God for his Father. In this sense, Jesus is not so much banning a word as He is insisting on a conformity to the one and perfect Father of us all. In this sense, St. Paul can say, You do not have many fathers, For I became your father in Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Cor 4:15). For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted you and charged each of you lead a life worthy of God (1 Thess 2:10). St. Paul takes up this title “Father” with them only in relation to how he guides them to what the Heavenly Father would want.
- Authority exists for service. Jesus says this of those in authority: The greatest among you must be your servant. In other words, those who have authority are to serve those under them, not “lord it over them.” Jesus says elsewhere,
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42ff)
Hence, those who have authority have it not for their glory but as a sign of their servitude. The priest who has authority has it to serve his people in teaching, sanctifying, and governing (uniting) them. Parents have authority in order to serve their children by raising them to become the men and women God intends them to be. The police officer has authority to protect and give order to the populace. The teacher has authority in order that she may teach the students. Authority is not for its own sake; it is for the sake of others.
- Authority is exercised among equals. In this world authority is equated with power; it is often given to those who are richer, more connected, and so forth. Some in authority may assume that they have authority because they are somehow better than others. Among Christians, however, authority is always exercised among equals. The greatest title one can have is “Child of God.” Titles such as CEO, President, Grand Knight, and Monsignor are mere footnotes. The Pope has authority in the Church, but he is no more baptized than you or I. Please understand, he does have authority and we have an obligation to submit to it, but his greatest title is not that of “Pope” or “Supreme Pontiff”; His greatest title is “Child of God.” Authority does not make me greater than you, it makes me your servant. Before God, though, we are all equally His children. This final point is my own addition; feel free to critique it.
So there it is, a Gospel not about terminology (as in “father”), but about authority; how to understand it and live it as a Christian. Remember, it is not just about that other guy; it’s about you, too, because you have authority as well. One day we will answer to God about how we have used our authority, whether to build or destroy, enable or disable, inspire or unnecessarily infuriate. We will also render an account for how we have acted toward those in authority. Although this world may praise disrespect and disobedience, God is neither impressed nor pleased. Authority—how we use it and respect it—is critical to God.
Note that the word “author” appears in the word “authority.” No authority exists unless it is granted by God (cf Jn 19:11). To the Author, all in authority must one day answer.