The Catholic Defender: Call No Man Father, Have You Ever Heard That Before
"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,
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. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Today's Gospel (Matthew 23:1-12) has a lot of ramifications as Jesus prepares to give his seven woes to the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 23:13-29). These warnings are actually a fulfillment to a promise God gave Israel should they turn from the Lord (Leviticus 26:17-32).
First, it is interesting that Jesus recognized the authority of the "chair of Moses"! The chair is an office that God established with Moses (Exodus 18:13) to judge the people, but because of the Pharisees turning from God's purpose to serve and follow Him, they were under the curse of the woes. The Seat of Moses is alluded in Exodus, but technically is not found in the Old Testament, but it is found in the “Mishna“ (oral tradition). This is an example that Jesus did recognize sacred tradition.
Leadership is a call to service, Jesus saw through the Pharisees who expected high honor among the people because of their position among them. The Pharisees wore the expected titles and went before the people judging from their powerful positions, "rabbi" (teacher), "father", and "Master".
The problem with the usage of these titles is that they are not understood from the position of a Hebrew family room, but the Pharisees used the titles as a noose over the people. "Father" is a title coming from the Old Testament which depicts God's love for his creation. The greatest example is when God changed Abram's name to Abraham. Abram meaning "father", Abraham meaning "Father of many nations". Jesus referred to Abraham as "Father" when challenging the Pharisees (read John 8:39-59). The Pharisees abused their privilege for personal honor which should be given to God.
Calling our Catholic priest's "Father" is not an apparent contradiction to what Jesus was talking about. It is not positions of authority that Jesus took exception to, but the abuse of that authority. Jesus clearly established within the Church positions of authority, but they should be servants of the people, not their lords.
The family structure gives the greatest understanding of where this authority comes from. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15) describing himself as a “Father” to his followers. His positions are fatherly. St. Stephen referred to those who persecuted him as his brothers and Father’s (Acts 7:2). St. John refers to “Fathers” as those knowing Jesus from the beginning, the leadership (1 John 2:14).
This is the spirit in which Catholics call our priest's "father", it is a position of service that reflects the creation of God the Father. The priest gives us life through the grace of the Sacraments that come from God. This is seen from a biblical Hebrew family room as God's judgments are fatherly, not specifically a court house though in extreme situations there are purposes of having tribunals (Matthew 18:15-20) to safeguard the faithful.
St. Paul writes about “Fathers” as heads of households. I love the story of the Prodigal Son. The image of the Father in this parable is really God the Father receiving all of us home!
The use of the titles "rabbi", "father", and "master" as positions of service is not disobedience to Jesus word, but a calling out the Pharisees who used those titles as leverage. To Jesus Apostles, it is all about service (John 13:13-17). Sadly, I know Catholics who left the Faith because they were misled by those who used Matthew 23:9 against them even though they themselves ignored Matthew 23:8. This happens when people misuse the Scriptures.
St Paul writes: "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen