Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of the Old Covenant (Mt 5:17). In Matthew 23:9 he appears to literally forbid us (which I do not think He did) to even acknowledge our natural fathers as our fathers. If He did, how can we keep the fourth commandment, “honor your father and your mother”? Also, taken literally, Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9 contradict his claim that He came, “not to abolish but to fulfill the Law.”
So that cannot be right. We know that the Son of God never contradicts himself.
Image by Daniela Dimitrova
By Tim Trainor
In our Gospel, there are four general points that we should look. The initial one we encounter is when Matthew has Jesus 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." This kind of attitude is still common for us today. “Do as I say not as I do.” Or, as we get from our politicians, “Rules for thee but not for me.” That is why you and I need to hear and observe the saying, “walk the talk.”
Secondly, He says, “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation Rabbi.” This is the danger of falling into a trap of popularity, power, fortune and other forms of self-achievement. They lost the sense of their God-given identity/value and become, what the Bible calls, “self-righteous.”
Jesus' next point for His own Disciples is a warning about the temptation to seek honors and titles that draw attention to themselves in place of God and His word. This is a very personal warning to them. We know that He is addressing His Disciples directly because His words are couched in, “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.” I can almost feel Him turning and pointing at His Disciples! He does this, I believe because pride tempts all of us to put ourselves above others. Some of us even put ourselves on the same level as God!
Lastly, He then gives His Disciples, and you and I, a “Humility Control” type of rule-of-thumb to live by. “The greatest among you must be your servant.”
This must be where Pope Saint Gregory the 1st got the idea of using the title, “Servant of the Servants of God,” to refer to himself as Pope in 590. Subsequent Popes have followed his very good example.
Have you ever been asked by someone, “Why do Catholics call their priests Father?” They call your attention to Matthew 23:9 which says, "You must call no one on earth your father." Drawing on the website “Catholic Answers,” consider this.
Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of the Old Covenant (Mt 5:17). In Matthew 23:9 he appears to literally forbid us (which I do not think He did) to even acknowledge our natural fathers as our fathers. If He did, how can we keep the fourth commandment, “honor your father and your mother”? Also, taken literally, Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9 contradict his claim that He came, “not to abolish but to fulfill the Law.” So that cannot be right. We know that the Son of God never contradicts himself.
In contrast to the attitudes of the Pharisees and others, Jesus is specifying the qualities Christian leaders must exhibit (See Mt 23:1-12). The Pharisees aspired to being called “rabbi” (or “master” or “teacher”), leaders of schools of thought. Among the schools headed by teachers called “rabbi” there were divergences of belief. Some of them in actual contradiction. A similar situation prevailed regarding “father.” in Aramaic, abba, is a title of honor. The title was given to well-known Jewish religious authorities. As with “rabbi,” so with “father.” The term designated the progenitor of a particular, even contradictory, pride-driven divisive interpretation of the Jewish faith that Jesus saw going on within and between the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees as they attempted to gain new followers.
Why did Jesus declare that no Christian leader is to be called “rabbi” or “father”? He was telling us that no leader may set up his own interpretation of the Christian faith and seek followers for his opinions. The role of leaders in Christ’s Church is to hand on Christ’s teaching received through the apostles (see Mt 28:19). The words of the apostle Paul epitomize the essential attitude of the Christian teacher. “This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23). Paul condemns church members in Corinth and directs them to stop dividing themselves by, “these slogans you have, like ‘I am for Paul,’ ‘I am for Apollos,’ ‘I am for Cephas’” (1 Cor 1:12).
The history of Protestantism is essentially the story of this very process—the unending proliferation of sectarian groups—saying, “I am for Martin Luther,” “I am for John Calvin,”or “I am for John Wesley.” The World Christian Encyclopedia reported in 1980 there were 20,780 distinguishable Christian denominations in the world. Every single one of these competing, contradicting denominations was formed by some person who said, in effect, “Call me ‘Master,’ call me ‘Teacher’; I will tell you what the Christian truth is!”
We, in the Catholic Church, hear Jesus saying in Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Saint Paul said in 1 Timothy 3:15, “... God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
Jesus saw all this coming. His warning about prideful seeking of status and the disunity it leads to is the behavior He wished His Disciples to avoid. They should not call themselves by one of the many in-vogue Jewish religious titles.
The Catechism also has this to say about a related topic, that emerged early on in Catholic Church, that of “Spiritual Fatherhood.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died in 108, knew the apostles, and expressed this concept well when he wrote: "Let everyone revere . . . the bishop as the image of the Father" (Catechism #1554). The Catholic Spiritual Father concept led to the practice of calling Catholic priests Father, and is based upon the shepherding role that Bishops and Priests play in baptizing new converts into to Catholic Church. They are “born again” spiritually, just as Jesus told Nicodemus, in John 3 3-5. The re-birth needed to happen to him also. So, as they uniquely participate in the spiritual begetting of God's children, bishops and priests can be said to be our spiritual fathers. And, as they share in the mission of Christ who reveals the eternal Father, I think that they have properly earned the right to be call Fathers. They help give spiritual birth into the family of God. They have nothing to do, out of pride, with starting a new sect of their own.
I've been struck several time at Mass this month by readings mentioning God's voice. Most strongly in the Transfiguration reading, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” Then the command follows, ”Listen to him!” We need to stay awake and “Listen for and to Him!” To Him ... alone.
Lastly, consider what we heard in Psalm 40 this Sunday. "I have waited, waited for the LORD, and He stooped towards me and He put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God. Many shall look on in awe and trust in the LORD!"
I believe that the overall message in our readings today is a calling to relate to people with humility and sincerity rather than with pride and self-promotion. Let our words be the living testimonies of Christ. These are humility, poverty, patience and obedience. May we be reminded always that Jesus and His word is most alive and effective when it is our actions that speak: The song that our very life sings!