31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Victor Feltes
Today’s gospel understandably prompts a question. Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in Heaven.” So why are Catholic priests called “Father”? Some non-Catholic Christians object to calling Catholic priests “Father” and abstain from doing so. However, I have never witnessed anyone similarly object to using the title “father” for their own beloved, male, biological parent. Jesus also says, “Do not be called ‘Rabbi,‘” and “Rabbi” means “Teacher,” yet every Christian school is staffed by “teachers.” Does Jesus intend us to take his words here literally or is he teaching us something deeper?
It is good to use Sacred Scripture to interpret Sacred Scripture, since the Holy Spirit inspired every passage and, rightly understood, God’s Word will not contradict itself. When we read the New Testament we see many men referred to as fathers. The 1st Letter of St. John says, “I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.” St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans about “our father Abraham” and “our father Isaac.” The Holy Spirit also inspired St. Paul in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians to call himself a spiritual father to those Christians. He writes, “Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” St. Paul similarly says in his Letter to Philemon, “I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become…” So we see that it can be fine to call some living or deceased men fathers. It can even be good to call yourself someone else’s father. So what does Jesus mean to warn us about by teaching, “Call no one on earth your father”?
Today’s gospel says Jesus was speaking to the crowds and his disciples about the authority and the flaws of the scribes and the Pharisees. In the ancient world, teachers would teach seated. For instance, Jesus sat down to give his Sermon on the Mount and sat in Simon Peter’s boat to preach to people gathered onshore. Ancient rulers reigned from chairs called thrones, so Christ is now “seated at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus said the Jewish scribes and the Pharisees had “taken their seat on the chair of Moses.” Before the establishment of the Church they apparently possessed legitimate authority to teach. “Therefore,” Jesus said, “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.”
Jesus noted these teachers’ lack of concern for others: “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.” He noted their vain egotism: “All their works are performed to be seen. … They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’” Instead of this, Jesus teaches us: “The greatest among you must be your servant.”
We who are fathers, or teachers, or who have any role of authority must remain humble. We are not flawless or perfect. We are not the Lord, our God. We are not given authority over others in order to serve ourselves. Jesus says, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Resemble Jesus Christ in this and your reward will resemble his. Christians must also remember that our fathers, our teachers, and all people in roles of authority on earth are not perfect. Even if they are trying their best, they are not the Lord, our God. Even popes, preserved by the Holy Spirit from teaching errors “ex cathedra,” can still misstep as shepherds in their words and actions.
A faithful leader is a great blessing; promoting truth, and love, and righteousness within their sphere of influence. That is why it is so important for each of us to be good servant-leaders. But we must not make idols of ourselves or others, as if we were perfect, this world’s savior, or the source of every good. We have only one such Good Teacher. We have only one such Father, in Heaven. And we have only one such Master, Jesus Christ our Lord, who worthy of our absolute trust and devotion.