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Today's Study

Matthew 23:9: Call No Man Father?

In his criticism of the scribes, contained in the discourse of Matthew 23, Jesus speaks disapprovingly of their liking for honorary titles: "They love to be greeted in the marketplaces, and to have men call them `Rabbi' " (Mt 23:7). Then he turns to his disciples and tells them not to be like that: "You are not to be called `Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers" (Mt 23:8). "Rabbi" was a term of respect given by a Jewish disciple to his teacher, and a well-known teacher would be known to the public as Rabbi So-and-so. Jesus was called "rabbi" by his disciples and by others; it was given to him as a mark of courtesy or respect. For Matthew, however, the word "rabbi" has a dubious connotation: in his Gospel the only disciple who calls Jesus "rabbi" is Judas Iscariot, and he does so twice: once at the supper table, when he responds to Jesus' announcement of the presence of a traitor in the company with "Surely not I, rabbi?" (Mt 26:25), and once in Gethsemane, where the "Greetings, rabbi!" which accompanies his kiss is the sign to the temple police that Jesus is the person to arrest (Mt 26:49). This attitude to the term "rabbi" may throw some light on the setting in which Matthew worked and the polemics in which he was engaged.

So, said Jesus to his disciples, refuse all courtesy titles: you have one teacher, and you are all members of one family. Members of a family do not address one another by formal titles, even if some of them indicate high distinction. When John Smith is knighted, his brothers, who have hitherto called him "John," do not begin to address him to his face as "Sir John," although others may properly do so. To them he is still John.

But what about calling no man father? Did Jesus mean that his followers ought not to address their fathers in a way that acknowledged their special relationship? It could be thought that he did mean just that, in view of the fact that he is never recorded as calling Mary "mother." But this is unlikely; he is speaking of the use of honorific titles among his disciples. It is equally unlikely that he meant "Call no man `Abba' but God alone." For one thing, Matthew's Greek-speaking readers would not naturally take the saying to mean this; for another thing, the whole point of calling God "Abba" was that this was the ordinary domestic word by which the father was called in the family, and to reserve "Abba" as a designation for God alone would do away with its significance (see comment on Mt 11:27). But Jesus' meaning could very well have been: In the spiritual sense God alone is your Father; do not give to others the designation which, in that sense, belongs exclusively to him. Jesus was his disciples' teacher, and they called him "Teacher," but they never called him "Father"; that was his designation for God.

But did not Paul speak of himself as his converts' father, since, as he said, he had become their "father in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Cor 4:15 RSV)? He did, but he was using a spiritual analogy, not claiming a title. Well, in insisting on his authority as an "apostle of Christ Jesus," was he not infringing at least the spirit of Jesus' admonition? No, for again he was not claiming a title but stating a fact; he was indeed commissioned and sent by the risen Lord, and from that was derived the authority with which he spoke. Similarly, if someone is doing the work of a bishop (say) or pastor, then to call him "Bishop So-and-so" or "Pastor So-and-so" simply recognizes the ministry which he is discharging.

Some Christians have interpreted these words of Jesus so literally that they would refrain from the use even of the very democratic "Mister," perhaps because of its derivation from "Master," either using no handle at all or preferring something reciprocal like "Friend" or "Brother." Others, considering (probably rightly) that it is the use of honorific titles in religious life that is deprecated by Jesus, would refuse the designation "The Reverend" to a minister, replacing it by "Mister" (which is perfectly proper) or (in writing) putting it between brackets (which is foolish) or even between quotation marks (which is offensive). But, as with so many of Jesus' injunctions, this one can be carried out in a stilted or pettifogging way which destroys the spirit of his teaching. If the local Catholic priest is known throughout the community as Father Jones, I am simply being silly if I persist in calling him something else. If I stop to think what is meant by my calling him Father Jones, I shall probably conclude that he is not my father in any sense but that he is no doubt a real father in God to his own congregation. "Father" in this sense is synonymous with "Pastor"; the former views the congregation as a family, the latter as a flock of sheep.

When a new bishop arrived in a certain English diocese a few years ago, he quickly let it be known that he did not wish to be addressed as "my lord." That, it may be suggested, was a genuine compliance with the spirit of these words of Jesus.

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