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Call No Man Father

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Well, if we’re paying attention this Gospel should cause us some difficulties.

It should cause us to question some things, right, because we hear Jesus saying to the disciples, “Call no one on earth your father. You have but one Father in heaven.”

And, yet, as I stand here before you today, what’s my name? Fr. Michael, right?  People call me Fr. Michael because I’m a priest and people call other priests Fr. Michael and yet we hear in the Gospel: “Call no one on earth your father.”

Now that might cause some of us to be shaken a little bit, and I want you to know that there are two ways to approach this. One way is to say, “Well, there’s a contradiction here, so I don’t believe the scriptures. I don’t believe God. I don’t believe the Catholic Church. I don’t believe anything that’s told me. Everything has got to be wrong.”  Or, we can take it and look at it maturely and deeply.

So, what does this mean, and why is Jesus saying, “Call no one on earth your father,” and yet, in our Catholic church, in our tradition, we’ve always had from the very early church the term father for human fathers, father for priests, abbas for abbots, which means God the Father like a daddy, Abba, Abba. And there are contradictions. I hate to kind of even shake you even more; there are contradictions within even scripture of other times where even the saints – the early apostles and disciples – used the term father. Not only calling God their Father but human fathers on earth.

So, we hear this in John 1 and Corinthians 4:15. The apostles and their successors used the name “father,” and it was common among early Christian communities. So, here we have 1 Corinthians 4:15 which is in scriptures, “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.”  So, St. Paul is saying, “I became your father,” and he goes even further to say, “Therefore I urge you be imitators of me.” Man, how do we contrast that with knowing to honor your father when Paul is saying, “I have become your father,” and he’s saying, “Be imitators of me?”

Well, St. Paul was indeed living this mystical reality of being an incarnational experience of God the Father, God’s love. We hear in 1 John 2:12 again to members of the community, and John is speaking this time: “I am writing to you, children, because your sins have been forgiven for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have conquered the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father.” God the Father in heaven. “I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong and the world of God remains in you, and you have conquered the evil one.  Do not love the world or the things of this world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

And, then we hear St. Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles: “So say my brothers and fathers, listen.” So, St. Stephen who is our first martyr of the church: “The God of glory and pure to our father, Abraham.” He calls Abraham, father. “While he was in Mesopotamia, before he had settled in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go forth from your land and your kinsfolk to the land that I will show you.’”

So, how do we deal with this apparent contradiction?

Well, the catechism tells us and the church tells us be attentive to the analogy of faith. So, paragraph 114 says: “By ‘analogy of faith’ we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.”  So, we have one little scripture passage here from Matthew, but we have to take this into account not only the whole of scripture but God’s entire plan of Revelation throughout the church and its tradition through all these years.

That’s right, all of scripture and all tradition. There’s a reality that only God is Father. So, the point that Jesus is making is clear that no one else is equal to God the Father. We do have that tendency to place too much hope or too much trust in people. But it doesn’t mean you get rid of everything. It doesn’t mean we no longer call God, “the Father,” or no longer call a priest, “father,” we don’t have “abbas” or we don’t call the Pope, “Papa.”

It doesn’t mean we get rid of all that. It’s just being aware that priests, that our Holy Father, that abbotts, that the fathers of our faith, are all there to show us that God loves. Just like St. Paul was to be called “father” only to show that God loves.

Now, here’s the difficulty in the contradiction, even in our modern world, which subscribes so much to inclusivity and use of language. We have to somehow hold intention of this reality that God has revealed to us. Jesus himself said, “When we pray, call God, ‘Father.’”

I have a dear priest friend, Fr. George who is actually the chaplain for a place called Guest House. Guest House is a place for priests and nuns and seminarians, actually, who are recovering from some kind of addiction or some kind of mental illness, or they’re coming there for treatment. So, yes, it even happens to priests, religious and seminarians.

None of us are exempt and from the reality of what happens when we lose this relationship with God the Father. And he says there are three qualities. He says before he even meets with somebody, he kind of knows already what they are going to say.  And the three things that are kind of across the board are first: They’re no longer able to pray, and they stop praying. The second is: They’re unable to be in silence.  They really find it difficult to be in silence, and that is why they’ve kind of filled this void and this emptiness with all the different addictive behaviors or things. And the third interestingly enough is: They’re not comfortable calling God the “Father” – calling God their father or relating to God as Father.

The reality is for all of us – we have probably been given a distorted image of God the Father. And, the whole reason Jesus came into the world was to reveal to us the true Father who God really is – this Abba and this unconditional loving father, this daddy, this love that is so patient and this father so kind.  This father that believes in you and hopes in you and endures in you and this father that will never fail you. 

We’ve all had human fathers or maybe even priests or fathers that have disappointed us. I was told in the seminary by Fr. McCrury, actually, (just a wise Capuchin priest), and he said, “When you become a priest, there’s going to be a tendency for people to want to put you on a pedestal.” And he said, “Be very careful of that because you’re going to fall, and it’s going to hurt really bad when you fall from the pedestal.” And, it’s true because we’re ultimately not God, we’re human. We’re imperfect, all of us priests.

Think of the priests you have known over all the years. There are probably priests that have really shown you really good qualities of God the Father, and there are priests that have failed and fallen at that. But it doesn’t mean that we get rid of the image of father. It just means that we just need to be maybe healed or restored or have a new image of God the Father that Jesus want to show us and often reveals to us in our human fathers or father figures or priests or bishops, and he will send people into our lives to help restore this image. So, I think it’s important for all of us first of all to think about our own lives. Those same three things because none of us are exempt from addiction.  None of us are exempt from falling into things or sin that we never thought we’d fall into.

Ask yourself, and I will ask myself, are we able to pray?  Because if we find ourselves no longer able to pray and that goes on for too long that could be very serious for us. Second is are we able to be in silence, and do we spend time every day in silence? So, think about your day. Is there time of really deep solitude every day? And I mean at least a significant amount of time . . . ten minutes, fifteen minutes or a half hour, maybe even a holy hour but start somewhere.

Have some silence, and do you learn to be comfortable with that silence because that’s where God wants to encounter you. And if we’re not comfortable with that silence, we tend to fill that void with other things or other people and ultimately that’s where we create idols. That is where we put people on pedestals. That’s where we put too much attention on one person or one thing. And, that brings us to the third . . . Are you comfortable with calling God your father?

Recently I’ve been taking Pray40Days to the prisons, and I’ve been going to Grafton prison. I’ve taken a group of parishioners there, and we’ve led the prisoners there for 40 days in this program of Pray40Days. Anytime I start the program, I always ask people to think about their relationship with God the Father because that’s really my whole love is to help you really have that personal encounter with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So, inevitably I’ll ask people, “Think about your relationship with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Which one do you relate to a little closest? Who do you feel the most comfortable with?  And, which are you least comfortable with? Which do you feel the most distant from?” And I ask the guys, the men there in the prison, I ask them that question and sure enough when I ask, “Which do you feel the least comfortable with?” And, I go through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. When I say God the Father, almost all the hands went up.

I realized it’s so tragic that they probably have had very poor images of fatherhood in their life. They probably had abusive fathers themselves or abandoned, you know, fathers that abandoned them or authority figures in their lives that abused their power and authority. So, the reality is, Jesus is saying this, “Call no one on earth your father,” to be first and foremost clear that no one on earth can equal God.

This is scripture. You know when we read scripture there’s different ways of understanding it and different ways that it’s supposed to be understood. Some scripture is literal and some is very intentional. When we are the Eucharist, “This is my body,” that is to be taken very literally – not figuratively.

Some scripture is parable. So, when Jesus talks about the Prodigal Son, it’s a parable where you can find a lot of meaning into it. This scripture itself is one of those where it’s supposed to be like a drastic, kind of like in-your-face thing. It’s a hyperbole where something is kind of hyper, overly-arched to make a point. So, he’s saying, “Call no one your father,” but that’s not to be taken as saying don’t call your dad “Father”; don’t call your priest, “Father.”

Don’t equate anyone with God. No one is God, but we have to be comfortable with coming to know God our Father. So, Jesus did say, “When you pray, say our Father.” And, we come to know who God the Father is through father people in our lives – through our human father, through our Godfather, through our Godparents, through our priests that we call father, through our bishops, our abbots, through people like that.  Maybe through the holy men in your life. Grandparents.

So, what is and what have your relationship with father figures impacted your spiritual life in a way you look at God the Father?

If you’re uncomfortable with God the Father, if you’ve had a bad image of God the Father – instead of just throwing that out, say I need to have this healed and restored and actually ask the Holy Spirit to give you a new image of God the Father, and maybe he will place people into your lives.

Priest, or fathers or father figures or just people that can father you and love you in some way so that ultimately you can come to know God the Father’s love. Just like St. Paul said, “I’ve come to show you the Father, and he said to his children, ‘Many of you have come to call me Father, and therefore be imitators of me.’” He said, “I became your father in Christ.” So who are the people that show you God’s love, and do you want to be imitators of but also help you to reveal who God is? Keeping in mind none of them are God, none of them are the Father, but they can show us the qualities of God the Father. And, just if you know priests throughout your life, think about the priests that have shown you the love of God the Father. That have made that incarnational in the flesh real. Think about the good qualities of your human father or grandfather or your godfather or someone that’s revealed to you God’s love. 

So, when we hear this phrase: “Call no one on earth your father,” remember it’s a hyperbole. It’s meant to kind of show us the drastic measure of don’t equate anyone with God but at the same time, remember who God is. He wants to be Father to you and, if you have a bad image of father, ask the Holy Spirit to open you up to truly reveal to you who God the Father is.

About the Author Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer.

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I'm Father Michael J. Denk, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. I am a contributor of content to The Prodigal Father Productions, Inc., a non-profit corporation functioning in accord with the traditions and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The corporation and I are separate, it doesn't speak for me, the parish, or on behalf of the Diocese of Cleveland, and I do not speak for it.