Well, remember I told you, the reading would continue to get more difficult until we reach Advent. So, this is a particularly difficult reading because we hear this phrase, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in Heaven.” And yet we call our priest ‘Father.’ Why do we do that? And what does this mean in the gospel?
Well, if this were something that we were trying to hide as a Catholic Church, we probably wouldn’t have put it in our lectionary. Not all the gospels are in the lectionary, but this is placed there for a reason. And the quick answer is this is a hyperbole. I’ll tell you more about what that means later, but this will be one of the points where Jesus uses exaggeration to try and nail a point. And specifically, this point is Humility. The point is that none of us grab titles to try to lift ourselves up but that we become who we are to show God’s love.
So, first of all, what does the scripture say about this? We understand the scripture not by just one line, but we always take whatever that line is and look at it with all the rest of the scripture to try to understand that. And I encourage you that whenever you encounter difficult things in the scripture, don’t push it away and say, ‘Hmm, that doesn’t make sense.’ Dig into it because that’s God calling out to you for something.
So here is what the scriptures say: Men were called teachers, fathers, and priests throughout scripture. So, we hear in the letter of Saint James, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with great strictness.” He’s saying that we who teach will be judged with great strictness. The higher the calling that we have, the greater the judgments and responsibility we have.
We hear in Ephesians, “And his gifts were that some should be called Apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and some teachers.” So even here in the letter of the Ephesians, that there is a place for people being called teachers, and prophets and evangelists and pastors, “and men were also called fathers, without breaking Christ’s word.
We hear this in John’s gospel: “Are you greater than our father, Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself?” We also hear in first John, “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 overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you fathers because you know Him who is from the beginning.” And then from the Acts of the Apostles, “And the high priest said, ‘Is this so,’” and Stephen, right before his martyrdom, said, “Brothers and Fathers, hear me, the God of Glory appeared to our father, Abraham, when He was in Mesopotamia before He lived. And finally, Saint Paul calls himself a father, again spiritually. “I do not write to you to make you feel ashamed but to admonish you as my beloved children. Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your Father, in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel.”
So, we hear in the scriptures repeatedly, these are only some of the selections, of how we do have examples of Jesus and the Apostles and Saint Paul, and the authors of the different New Testament writings, calling themselves or each other father. The early church also understood this, so this is a little note from Saint John Chrysostom. He says, “Call no man your father; this is said so that they may know whom they ought to call the father in the highest sense.” That’s what Jesus is getting at. Always remember who the Father is. And then he says, “It’s not said frivolously if no one should be called father, just as the human master is not divine master, so neither is the father, The father, who is the cause of all.” So, he is saying that yes, we can call and use the title father when it is that spiritual and loving sense of who God is. Saint Jerome says, “Remember, there is a distinction here. It’s one thing to be a father by nature and distinction and another by generosity. One is rightly called a teacher only from association with the true teacher. I repeat that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly, this does not make the term, father or teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.
We have a lot of examples of fathers in scripture. So how do we make sense of this passage where Jesus is saying, “Call no one on earth your Father?” As I said before, this would be an example of hyperbole, where Jesus is taking something and showing something drastically. Another example would be fitting a camel through the eye of a needle. We know that’s impossible. Another hyperbole would be to cut your right hand off. Don’t do that. Another one would be, to pluck out your eyeball. So those are hyperboles. Another would be to hate your father and mother. So He doesn’t mean that in the literal sense, that would be hyperbole to shock us or get our attention. And the last one I want to mention is, “I came to bring division, not peace; I came with the sword.” That’s a hyperbole because we know Christ came to bring peace and unity. But He is using that to show that there will be a striking difference when we follow His commandments.
So, the point that I want to shift to now is that this point is very evident in the scriptures and condemns priests in general. We hear in the first reading, “Oh priest, this commandment is for You. If you do not listen or lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the Lord, I will send a curse upon you, and of your blessing, I will make a curse.” I read that as a priest, thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t want that to happen to me.’ But we know we have priests who are not being the priests God called them to be. We know the scandal that happened in the church and have seen that shatter and scatter the flock. Ever since the scandal, people have left the church and not returned. And so, this grave responsibility that we are given. And then we hear in the Gospel. He says, “They preach, and they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens for others to carry. All their works are performed to be seen. They love the places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, that seat right there (points to where he sits), greetings in the marketplace, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
The whole idea here is that we don’t take our position and abuse them. So that I don’t take my position as Father and make it all about me. My hope and desire is to help people know God the Father through my love and deeds. And that is what we hear in the second reading, this beautiful image of God, “like a weaned child in its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me. We were gentle among you like a nursing mother cares for her children.” That’s what it means to be a good priest. Now the other thing is all these other titles are used as well: professor, doctor, even parents, comes from the word ‘pater,’ like the Our Father, so Father, all of these, all of our responsibilities, our titles should never be abused. And so, this applies to parents, to be the best gentlest parents you could be. And to never abuse the authority that you have over your children. This goes for doctors as well. We’ve all heard of doctors with bad bedside manners, right? Doctors, too, are supposed to be loving kind, and gentle. For you teachers: what a wonderful and great responsibility that you have. But also with kindness and goodness and gentleness.
In the curse that is talked about in the first reading, this curse can be reversed. And so that is what we hope to do together. That we reverse that abuse of any authority and that we truly become the good leaders that God has called us to be.
Now for me, I love being called Father. And the reason is because I look at that as such an affectionate, gentle, loving term. There have been so many good priests in my life that even when I was ordained a priest, I still call them Father because I loved having those father figures. Now Facebook doesn’t like having me called Father. Facebook strips me of my Father, so if you ever see me, it says, Michael J. Denk, I didn’t choose that. That’s what Facebook did because we can’t have titles. So, the idea is that we can reverse this curse. It’s important that you pray for priests because we need your prayers to be the loving priests God has called us to be. But all of us take responsibility for that authority that we have and always use that authority for good to be the gentle, loving figure we hear about in the second reading.
So, pray for us priests, and by the way, deacons, diaconate means to serve; these are highlighted in the Gospel. Today is my diaconate anniversary, when I was ordained a deacon 16 or 17 years ago. May we love each other, may we always use our position of authority for kindness, for gentleness, for goodness, and may that authority, that title that is given to us, always reflect the authority of God, the goodness of God, the Fatherhood of God, that you may always be loved. I always like to say, if you have ever been hurt by a priest, and this could mean something to you, I want to say, “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry for any priest who has ever hurt you or disappointed you, and hopefully, we, as priests, can restore that image to be truly good and holy priests and take that title Father in all of its goodness.