Chapter and verses

In the Catholic Lectionary for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, which is this Sunday, Nov. 5, the Gospel reading is Matthew 23:1-12. Within those verses Jesus states, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” (Matt 23:9) Catholics are sometimes criticized for calling their priests “Father” (for example, my parishioners call me Fr. Joe), which seems to violate Jesus’ statement not to do that. However, there is a danger in isolating one particular verse of Scripture without looking at the other verses surrounding it, and without considering its context.

In the chapters (Matthew Ch. 21 & 22) immediately before the above cited verse, and in the remainder of Chapter 23, Jesus is trying to correct the religious leaders of the time (the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees) through parables meant for everyone, but peculiarly aimed at them, or they are trying to set Jesus up so they can trap him in some discrepancy or controversy to discredit him and get rid of him. These religious leaders had legitimate roles in the lives of the people. They were called to be the teachers (rabbis); nurturers, protectors, and life givers to the community (fathers); to be leaders with authority (masters), however they weren’t living up to their calling.

“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.'” (Matt 23:4-7)

They liked the privileges of those titles, but neglected the responsibilities. They had corrupted the meaning of the terms rabbi, father, and master, and Jesus didn’t want the people to follow in their corruption. But what about those who live up to, who honor, who are good examples of these roles (rabbi, father, master)? Surely Jesus — who is the “Truth,” and who leads us to truth — would want the truth of those examples to be seen and followed. It seems that here Jesus was using a form of hyperbole — a linguistic convention of using absolute contrasts to make a point, and which was not meant to be taken literally. For an example, earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29-30) Did Jesus really mean for us to literally do those things? And if so, how come there aren’t more one-eyed, one-handed Christians around? Another example of the use of hyperbole is Luke 14:26, “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.” Did Jesus literally mean we have to hate our father and mother? If so, then what are we to make of the commandment: “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12)? Of course Jesus doesn’t want us to hate our parents; but he’s making a point — through the use of hyperbole — about the importance of being a disciple of his, and nothing should get in the way of that.

Jesus himself, in the parable of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), uses the term “father” for Abraham and for the rich man’s own father. Uh-oh, did Jesus make a mistake? (Hint, the answer is “no”.) Now, one might say that it’s Jesus’ prerogative to use the term “father,” after all he is the Son of God, but it’s not OK for anyone else (that is, if we are to apply all of this literally). Well, then what about other places in the New Testament scriptures (which are the inspired Word of God) where the term “father” is applied to people? A few examples: in Romans 4:11-12, St. Paul refers to Abraham as “father” of all the uncircumcised and the circumcised. In 1 Corinthians 4:15-16, St. Paul refers to himself as a father, “Granted you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you have only one father. It was I who begot you in Christ Jesus through my preaching of the gospel. I beg you, then, be imitators of me.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:11, St. Paul states, “You likewise know how we exhorted every one of you, as a father does his children.” In Acts 7, St. Stephen uses the term “father” multiple times to refer to Abraham (and even Abraham’s own father), to Isaac and Jacob, and to Moses’ father. And there are other examples besides these. If Jesus had meant what he said to be taken literally (“Call no one on earth your father”), then why did the Holy Spirit inspire the authors of these Holy Scriptures to use the term “father” in their writings? And why do we continue to call our male parents “father”?

And oh, I forgot to mention the verses immediately before and after Matthew 23:9. “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ (which means “teacher“) You have but one teacher” (Matt 23:8). “Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ.” (Matt 23:10) If we are to take these Scripture verses literally, then why do we call those who instruct ourselves and our children “teachers”? Why do we call physicians and those with PhD degrees “Doctor” (which is taken from the Latin word for “teacher”)? And, uh-oh, what about any Christian who has a master’s degree?

So, yes, as a Roman Catholic priest, I am called “Father Joe.” I hope and pray that I live up to the responsibilities of that title, and to the expectations of my heavenly Father.

Have a blessed week.