Apologetic Tracts: Call No One Father

By 11:02 AM


Call No One Father

 Have you ever been confronted as a Catholic with the question: “Why do you call your priest Father? Doesn’t Jesus say in Matthew’s Gospel ‘do not call anyone  Father?’”

Before I begin to respond to this misinterpretation of what Jesus meant, it is necessary to remember two important principles in regards to the Scriptures. First, Scripture texts are never to be taken out of context or, to say it positively, texts should be seen not in isolation but in the full context in which they are found.  Secondly, there is no contradiction between texts. Thus, interpretation of a particular text must be seen in relationship to the rest of the Scriptures.

What did Jesus say in the 23rd chapter of Matthew?

 "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 Messiah. The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.“  (Mt 23:2-12)

What is the context in which he made the statement “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven”? (v6). Jesus was addressing His disciples but talking about the pride of some of the Pharisees and Scribes who were always looking for places of honor and titles of importance. In contrast, Jesus emphasizes the need for true humility. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (v12)

The Pharisees and Scribes were fond of recognition and honor because they pride themselves as being set apart, a class above others. Jesus was rejecting this attitude and external show. He was telling them to humble themselves and stop putting themselves on pedestals.

In the same passage and context, Jesus says not to call anyone teacher but Himself. And yet, we use this term, teacher, regularly for others than Jesus. In fact, Jesus commissioned the apostles as teachers in one of his final words to them. "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Mt 28:118-20)

Paul would recognize this as one of the roles that is found in the Church as a ministry of the Spirit. “Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers.” (1 Cor 12:28)  Is Paul or others in the Scriptures violating Jesus’ intention when he calls himself and others as teachers? By no means!

But let us return to the question of calling another person father in the biological sense, legal sense or spiritual sense.. Do the rest of the Scriptures uphold the literal interpretation of this prohibition? No. The Fourth Commandment states: “Honor your Father and your Mother.” It doesn’t say “honor your male and female parents.”

There are many other texts in the Scriptures that clearly use the title father, addressed to human fathers.

Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26)

The parable of the Prodigal Son used by Jesus is    replete with the title father. (Lk 15:11-32)  Is Jesus contradicting Himself?

“And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’” (Lk 16:24)

“And Peter replied, ‘My brothers and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia, before he had settled in Haran, and said to him, “Go forth from your land and (from) your kinsfolk to the land that I will show you.” (Acts 7:2-3)

“I am writing you this not to shame, but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:14-15)

 In referring to Timothy, Paul writes: “But you know his worth, how as a child with a father he served along with me in the cause of the gospel.” (Phil 2:22.)

Paul was very conscious of his role as a spiritual father.  In his Letter to Philemon, he writes: “I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment…”(v 10).  There are many other Scripture passages that use the title father in reference to human beings.

Paul’s statement in his letter to the Corinthians cited above gives the real understanding of why we, as Catholics, call our priest father. This title indicates the role of the priest as a spiritual father to us. What the human father does for his children on the natural level, the priest, as father, does for the people under his pastoral care on the spiritual level.

If we took the words of Jesus literally, then we would have to delete the title father from the Bible, except when it specifically refers to God the Father. In doing so, we would have to rewrite the Scriptures to fit a human interpretation rather than receive the Word of God in the context and understanding given us. That would then give us a human “bible” not the revealed Word of God.

We would have to refrain from addressing our human parent as father. That would again establish our vision of creation and relationship, not God’s.  He is Father and he calls men to reflect His fatherhood to those they beget naturally. When we don’t, we risk the reverse happening, as it is in fact taking place. Because some people don’t want to recognize the human father, they have a difficulty addressing God as Father. They prefer a non-relational or nondescript term like the Great Spirit.

When we call a priest by the title “father,” we are recognizing our spiritual relationship with him in Christ. It is Christ who baptizes us normally through the ministry of the priest. It is Christ who forgives our sins, again through the ministry of the priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is Christ who feeds us with His Body and Blood through the ministry of the priest. There is a spiritual relationship with the human person, the priest, which is established and ordained by God himself.

 
This relationship was clear in the early church and later was given a title reflecting the relationship. When the Reformers had a problem with the Church, they began by questioning the relevancy of priests, bishops and popes. They questioned the teaching authority of the Church and its sacramental life. They sought to justify their questions and subsequent actions by private interpretation of the Scriptures, even out of context. In a sense, one can practically justify almost anything from the Scriptures if taken out of context and interpreted humanly.

If we follow the two principles cited at the beginning, then there is no basis for questioning calling a priest “father”, nor calling someone teacher. Instead, there is enough evidence to validate this practice that has been part of the life of the Church from apostolic times. I think I am more comfortable following Jesus and an apostle like St. Paul than one of lesser authority.

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