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Christ Pantocrator icon by Zola Grace

Call no one on earth your father. (Matt 23:9).

Have you ever wondered to yourself about this Gospel? Especially from a Catholic perspective, have you ever stumbled a bit over it? Of course, this verse is often cited by Protestant apologists to critique the Catholic priesthood and the long-standing custom of addressing priests as “Father”’ (See my by-line above!).

Now this column in Restoration is not normally a place of engagement in interdenominational apologetics, and I won’t make an exception for this article. There are many easily accessed sources on the Internet giving the Catholic answer to that particular challenge, highlighting, among other things, the many, many times in the New Testament that people other than God are referred to as fathers both physical and spiritual. If this passage raises that question in your mind, the answers are one short Google search away.

Matthew 23 is really not about all that, but is a call to deeply examine the exercise of authority in the Church and in the world, along with the trappings surrounding it. The Lord’s words in the larger passage are vivid, picturesque, captivating. We have the criticism of broader phylacteries and longer tassels (v. 5), as well as the seeking of places of honor at banquets (v. 6), and, of course, the point of the whole passage, that the greatest among you must be your servant (v. 11), and that whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (v. 12). This passage is not, then, an indictment of the Catholic priesthood or a condemnation of ancient Catholic and Orthodox practice.

It is, however, a profound, sharp challenge to any and all who exercise authority in the Church – indeed to any who exercise authority in any human domain, and, ultimately, to every human being. Is there anyone who does not in some fashion, somehow and at some point in their lives, exert power over others one way or another, or at least seek to do so?

Call no one on earth your father, for you have but one Father in heaven. This alone is a call to a deep humility which establishes all of our relationships in right order. We all have one Father in common, our heavenly one.

Before any of us stand in any relationship to each other of higher-lower, stronger-weaker, in authority-under authority – all of us stand side by side together as brothers and sisters, members of the one family which is humanity, with the one Father of us all.

So of course, the pope, the bishops, the priests of the Church – we all must take this as deeply into our hearts as our hearts have depths. This verse should condition the entire way any kind of authority is wielded in the Church. There is meant to be a profound gentleness, lowliness, meekness, reverence for the other, and especially the poorest and weakest “other,” that should permeate all exercise of spiritual authority.

We all know, without going into a subject that is far beyond the capacity of this short article, that this is an area of the Lord’s teaching in the Gospels that the Church has historically fallen woefully, tragically short of in its lived experience. Too often in the last two thousand years, those of us in ecclesiastical office have carried ourselves more as earthly princes than as humble servants washing the feet of their brethren. This is an area for ongoing self-examination, repentance, and reform in the Church, I believe.

So yes, this Gospel is a strong word for all the clergy, a challenge to us that will endure unto the Parousia. But what about all you reading this Gospel and this article who aren’t clergy? Are you off the hook? Broaden your metaphorical phylacteries to your heart’s content, wear symbolic tassels down to your ankles, and ruthlessly elbow your way into those emphatically non-metaphorical seats of honor? After all, Jesus isn’t talking to you!

Of course, we know that can’t be right. The Gospel is a call and a challenge to all human beings. Any time any of us, in any way, shape, or form, seek to put ourselves “in the chair of Moses” (v. 2), that is, in the seat of judgment, in the seat that is somehow (and the ways we do this are manifold) “above” the other, whoever the other may be, this Gospel is a call to us.

That other may even be the pope, the bishop, or your pastor, and you standing over them in judgment and harsh critique: “Oh, just look at those bishops, how arrogant they are! Look at Father so-and-so (humph), who does he think he is?” And so we can go, very easily.

No, this is not the way of Christ. We are all called to stand as brothers and sisters together before our one Father in heaven. We are all called to approach every human being – those we see as beneath us, those we see as above us, and those we may not see at all because we deem them not important enough to notice – we are called to see everyone as a beloved member of God’s family, as a child of the Kingdom, a child of our one Father who is the teacher of us all in his Christ. This is meant to govern every interaction and indeed every movement of our hearts and minds towards the other, whoever they are.

All are called to humble themselves; all are called to be humble servants of the other. All are called to follow the one Master who is Jesus (v. 8), who shows us the way in this matter as in all matters.

Oh, it’s a deep call, and it ultimately asks everything of us – not simply to wash the feet of the other, but to die for them, truly. But here our faith informs us that it is precisely this that is the exaltation God promises us – if we are willing to be humble and serving and loving to the point of total gift unto death, we are raised up with Jesus in his glory.

This is the path of life for us all, so let’s be wise and watchful in our walking of it.

Restoration January 2024

Pantocrator icon by Zola Grace