Call no man father, revisited
23rd July 2012 · 0 Comments
By Fr. Jerome LeDoux
A friend concluded a recent email with the query, “Why does the Bible instruct us NOT to call anyone ‘father’ yet we address priests as such??”
It has been some years since I last addressed this question in writing, although there have been a number of occasions when someone broached the subject. Since it is one of those topics that never quite seem to go away, here it is again, folks.
First of all, it is of the utmost importance to remember that Jesus is always a man of paradoxes, stating many things that are apparent contradictions to be analyzed by us.
For instance, although Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:1, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” he also tells us in Matthew 5:14-16, “You are the light of the world… your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
Jesus admonishes us to negotiate that hair-thin line between the humility we must maintain before God and God’s burning desire that we do our best to live our lives to the full as directed by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is a person fully alive!”
It is this man of paradoxes whom we must understand when he says in Matthew 23:9, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” Yet, Jesus quotes Moses and the Decalogue in Mark 7:10, “Honor your father and your mother.”
Clearly, the context of that first statement shows that Jesus was hammering the vainglorious lust of the Pharisees for titles, prestige, public recognition, places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues, and being called Rabbi in the marketplaces.
So, when Jesus said, “Do not be called ‘Rabbi’ (teacher)… Call no one… father. Do not be called ‘Master,’” he was obviously not forbidding anyone to apply the word “father” to one’s own parent, as he had already quoted the Decalogue. Such an irrational application would also beg the question, “Would Jesus restrict us to ‘daddy’ or ‘papa?’”
To continue the absurdity, what else would we call a teacher in the classroom? Surely, Jesus is not forcing us to say exclusively, Ms./Mrs. Brown or Mr. Taylor. Besides, teachers in today’s world do not take particular glory in the title of “teacher,” although it must be admitted that some consider “professor” a prestigious title.
A bigger reality at play here is that “Father” is not a title, but a nickname, a term of endearment. Some of my friends really understand that, for they call me by a variety of terms: papa, daddy, pere (French for father), padre (Italian or Spanish for father), pops, baba (African term for an older, reputedly wiser, man), Jerome, Gaston or my nickname.
Pope is a similar term of endearment deriving from papa, the Latin or Greek term that indicates the top bishop. If you ever heard the Italians calling out to the Pope at a papal appearance, you would have no doubt that “Papa! Papa! Papa!” is nothing more than an emotional, informal term with the same meaning as a child’s “papa, papa, papa!”
The Pope’s official title, of course, is one that even Jesus would gladly adopt: “Servus Servorum Dei,” or in English, “Servant of the Servants of God.” My racy translation of that is, “Flunky Number One In All The World.”
Actually, Rev., is the priest’s title that should be used in any correspondence or on a program for a wedding, funeral or any other celebration. I take special delight in saying that Rev., is my proper title because I’m always revved up!
I am amused as I observe non-Catholics fumbling to call me Pastor, Reverend, Doctor, Priest, Minister, Preacher – any creative term but Father. Little do they know that I feel equally at ease with any of those terms as well as with my nickname or first or last name with no prefix. As the old saying goes, “Call me anything but late for supper.”
This article originally published in the July 23, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.