The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Today’s Gospel is a great teaching moment for Catholics. Many Protestants claim that when Catholics address priests as "father," they are engaging in an unbiblical practice that Jesus forbade: "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven" (Matt. 23:9).
Often non-Catholics ask me, "Why do Catholics call their priests 'father'?" In so doing, they invariably point out this passage we read today. How should we as Catholics answer?
A Catholic might respond, "How do you refer to your mother's husband? What do you call him?" If a Catholic is wrong in calling his priest "father," then everyone who refers to his own natural father as "father" is also in the wrong. Both usages would be prohibited by a literal interpretation of Jesus' words. I am not trying to sound like a smart Alek here; merely pointing out a fact we can all relate to.
Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of the Old Covenant (Mt 5:17). If in our Gospel reading today He literally forbids us even to acknowledge our natural fathers as our fathers, how can we keep the fourth commandment ("honor your father and your mother")? Taken literally, Jesus' words in Matthew 23:9 contradict his claim in Matthew 5:17, but we know that the Son of God never contradicts Himself.
Look again at the passage in which Jesus says we must call no one "father." In contrast to the attitudes of the Pharisees and others, Jesus is specifying the qualities Christian leaders must exhibit. The Pharisees aspired to being called "rabbi" (or "master" or "teacher"), leaders of schools of thought. It is known from Jesus’ address in this that the Pharisees not only wanted, but virtually demanded they be called by one of these titles. They expected to be “revered.”
One must first understand the use of the word "father" in reference to our earthly fathers. No one would deny a little girl the opportunity to tell someone that she loves her father. Common sense tells us that Jesus wasn’t forbidding this type of use of the word "father."
In fact, to forbid it would rob the address "Father" of its meaning when applied to God, for there would no longer be any earthly counterpart for the analogy of divine Fatherhood. The concept of God’s role as Father would be meaningless if we obliterated the concept of earthly fatherhood.
But in the Bible the concept of fatherhood is not restricted to just our earthly fathers and God. It is used to refer to people other than biological or legal fathers, and is used as a sign of respect to those with whom we have a special relationship.
For example, Joseph tells his brothers of a special fatherly relationship God had given him with the king of Egypt: "So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt" (Gen. 45:8).
Job indicates he played a fatherly role with the less fortunate: "I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know" (Job 29:16). And God himself declares that he will give a fatherly role to Eliakim, the steward of the house of David: "In that day I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah . . . and I will clothe him with [a] robe, and will bind [a] girdle on him, and will commit . . . authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah" (Is. 22:20–21).
This type of fatherhood not only applies to those who are wise counselors (like Joseph) or benefactors (like Job) or both (like Eliakim), it also applies to those who have a fatherly spiritual relationship with one. For example, Elisha cries, "My father, my father!" to Elijah as the latter is carried up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kgs. 2:12). Later, Elisha himself is called a father by the king of Israel (2 Kgs. 6:21).
Some Fundamentalists argue that this usage changed with the New Testament—that while it may have been permissible to call certain men "father" in the Old Testament, since the time of Christ, it’s no longer allowed. This argument fails for several reasons.
First, as we’ve seen, the imperative "call no man father" does not apply to one’s biological father. It also doesn’t exclude calling one’s ancestors "father," as is shown in Acts 7:2, where Stephen refers to "our father Abraham," or in Romans 9:10, where Paul speaks of "our father Isaac."
Second, there are numerous examples in the New Testament of the term "father" being used as a form of address and reference, even for men who are not biologically related to the speaker. There are, in fact, so many uses of "father" in the New Testament, that the Fundamentalist interpretation of Matthew 23 (and the objection to Catholics calling priests "father") must be wrong.
Third, a careful examination of the context of Matthew 23 shows that Jesus didn’t intend for his words here to be understood literally. The whole passage reads, "But you are not to be called ‘rabbi,’ for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘masters,’ for you have one master, the Christ" (Matt. 23:8–10).
The first problem is that although Jesus seems to prohibit the use of the term "teacher," Christ himself appointed certain men to be teachers in his Church: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Paul speaks of his commission as a teacher: "For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle . . . a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth" (1 Tim. 2:7); "For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher" (2 Tim. 1:11). He also reminds us that the Church has an office of teacher: "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers" (1 Cor. 12:28); and "his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11). There is no doubt that Paul was not violating Christ’s teaching by referring so often to others as "teachers."
Non-Catholics themselves slip up on this point by calling all sorts of people "doctor," for example, medical doctors, as well as professors and scientists who have Ph.D. degrees. What they fail to realize is that "doctor" is simply the Latin word for "teacher." Even "Mister" and "Mistress" ("Mrs.") are forms of the word "master," also mentioned by Jesus. So if his words in Matthew 23 were meant to be taken literally, non-Catholics would be just as guilty for using the word "teacher" and "doctor" and "mister" as Catholics for saying "father." But clearly, that would be a misunderstanding of Christ’s words.
Jesus criticized Jewish leaders who love "the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called ‘rabbi’ by men" (Matt. 23:6–7). His admonition here is a response to the Pharisees’ proud hearts and their grasping after marks of status and prestige.
He was using hyperbole to show the scribes and Pharisees how sinful and proud they were for not looking humbly to God as the source of all authority and fatherhood and teaching, and instead setting themselves up as the ultimate authorities, father figures, and teachers.
Christ used hyperbole often, for example when he declared, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell" (Matt. 5:29, cf. 18:9; Mark 9:47). Christ certainly did not intend this to be applied literally, for otherwise all Christians would be blind amputees! (cf. 1 John 1:8; 1 Tim. 1:15).
Jesus is not forbidding us to call men "fathers" who actually are such—either literally or spiritually. To refer to such people as fathers is only to acknowledge the truth, and Jesus is not against that. He is warning people against inaccurately attributing fatherhood—or a particular kind or degree of fatherhood—to those who do not have it or are merely looking to be treated with high elevation of status than they are due. Jesus was not hung up on the word “father” or “teacher”, but that He condemned the practice of some leaders in heaping titles on themselves out of pride and self-importance.
As the apostolic example shows, some individuals genuinely do have a spiritual fatherhood, meaning that they can be referred to as spiritual fathers. What must not be done is to confuse their form of spiritual paternity with that of God. Ultimately, God is our supreme protector, provider, and instructor. Thus, it is wrong to view any individual other than God as having these roles.
He is not forbidding the perfunctory use of honorifics nor forbidding us to recognize that the person does have a role as a spiritual father and teacher. The example of His own Apostles shows us that.
Possibly the most pointed New Testament reference to the theology of the spiritual fatherhood of priests is Paul’s statement, "I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:14–15).
Peter followed the same custom, and the Apostles sometimes referred to entire churches under their care as their children. John said, "My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1); "No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth" (3 John 4). In fact, John also addresses men in his congregations as "fathers" (1 John 2:13–14).
By referring to these people as their spiritual sons and spiritual children, Peter, Paul, and John imply their own roles as spiritual fathers. Since the Bible frequently speaks of this spiritual fatherhood, we Catholics acknowledge it and follow the custom of the Apostles by calling priests "father." Failure to acknowledge this is a failure to recognize and honor a great gift God has bestowed on the Church: the spiritual fatherhood of the priesthood.
Catholics know that as members of a parish, they have been committed to a priest’s spiritual care, thus many cases they have great filial affection for priests and call them "father." Priests, in turn, follow the Apostles’ biblical example by referring to members of their flock as "my son" or "my child" (Gal. 4:19; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:1; Philem. 10; 1 Pet. 5:13; 1 John 2:1; 3 John 4).
All of these passages were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and they express the infallibly recorded truth that Christ’s ministers do have a role as spiritual fathers. Jesus is not against acknowledging that. It is He who gave these men their role as spiritual fathers, and it is His Holy Spirit who recorded this role for us in the pages of Scripture. To acknowledge spiritual fatherhood is to acknowledge the truth, and no amount of anti-Catholic grumbling will change that fact.
It is right and proper that we should feel both respect and affection for our clergy; respect because in ordination they have received the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a priest in the church of God; affection because they play in intimate part in the happiest and the saddest events of our lives and often become our cherished friends.
For some, it difficult to remember into how high a dignity, into how weighty an office and charge he is been called to carry out.
Familiarity neither expresses nor encourages respect. On the other hand, to call a priest simply “Mister” is very commonplace, it does not convey any of the warmth with which we like to regard a man, who though he may be a stranger to us in some circumstances, administers the Sacraments to us, shares so many of our joys, and comforts us in so many of our afflictions. It is because it is a form of address that expresses both respect and affection that Catholics use the address “father” when addressing a priest.
As some of you noticed, I inserted an article on a mystical revelation reported to have been given to a Mutter Vogel. Although, her book is extremely difficult to find, it can be found in the Pieta Prayer booklet. She actually existed and was a member of my wife's family. She is buried at the Waldfriedhof in Munich, Germany. She devoted her life to praying for priests. I also inserted a prayer for priests that is attributed to her as well. (I highly recommend the Pieta book, incidentally, though some of the prayers are intense.)
Let us pray.
That all will defend religious liberty in order to live the deeper freedom that is discipleship in Jesus Christ. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
That those engaged in the business world will work for the spread of solidarity. We pray to the Lord.
For an increase of vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life. We pray to the Lord.
That our priests and bishops in the world will be given the wisdom, grace, strength, and perseverance to carry out their calling this difficult world. We pray to the Lord.
For children with special needs, their parents, and their families; that they will be given all the love and support they need. We pray to the Lord.
That You lead those in our world who by either wrong inspiration or who are in need of mental assistance, will be guided to the appropriate resources so that terrorism and hate will be greatly reduced in the world. We pray to the Lord.
For our parish members who have sick family members and friends; that they be given the strength and grace to continue helping their family members in illness; and that those who are ill may be given courage and healing during their time of need. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to be good citizens and to witness the grace of the Gospel. We pray to the Lord.
That we may all use tact and tolerance toward all those we meet on daily path, most especially with whom we may not agree. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, let Your mercy be upon us as we place our trust in you. Be with the many thousands of priests throughout the world, that they may be a true witnesses and examples of our Lord Jesus Christ to all Your people. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA
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