Sermon delivered August 28, 2008
It's unfortunate that today's scripture readings, from the 10th Sunday of Matthew do not coincide with our American celebration of Father's Day. As we know, the Church has its own sense of time and her lectionary system was constructed many centuries ago. Yet, we have two good examples of fathers today. In the Gospel (Mt.17:14-23) we see a father approaching Jesus and kneeling before Him and asking Him to heal his epileptic son (v.14-15). In the Epistle, St. Paul himself tells the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:9-16) that He is their father in Christ Jesus through the preaching of the good news (v.15) and he urges them, "Imitate me" (v.16).
These two examples seem to contradict Jesus command in Matthew 23:9 "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven." We learn from the pamphlet "Call No Man Father" by Richard Ballew (Conciliar Press) that most Protestants interpret this passage as a prohibition for using the word "father" to refer to a spiritual father. However, if strictly interpreted, the prohibition would extend to paternal fathers, grandfathers, city fathers, Church fathers etc.
St. Paul uses the term father in many ways. In addition to today's epistle, he speaks of "Our fathers" (1Cor. 10:1) and "Fathers, do not provoke your children" (Colossians 3:21). Jesus Himself, telling the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, refers to "Father Abraham" (Luke 16:24-25). He also warned against using the title "Rabbi/Teacher" but acknowledged Nicodemus as a "teacher of Israel" (John 3:10). St. Luke called certain men in the Church of Antioch "prophets and teachers" (Acts 13:1). St. Paul recognized teachers/teaching as a gift of God in the Church (1Cor. 12:28; Eph. 3:11) and called himself "a teacher of the Gentiles" (2Tim. 1:11).
So what does Jesus mean when He says, "call no man father"? Our Lord is contending with certain rabbis of His day who were using these specific titles to accomplish their own ends. Some of the rabbis were adding their own ideas of wisdom to the true tradition of Moses' teaching and thereby clouding it. Jesus points out this error in Mark 7, "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men" He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do" (v.8-13).
By saying, "You shall not be called rabbi", Jesus was telling His disciples not to use their position as fathers and teachers as an opportunity to build disciples around their own private opinions. Instead, with the coming of Christ, these rabbis—and indeed all who would teach God's Word—are to faithfully hand down the true tradition of only one Rabbi: Christ Himself.
Jesus was also indicting the sinful character of the rabbis. They were exalting themselves above everyone around them. Hypocrisy, love of money, corruption, lack of service and self-love were other problems that Jesus criticized.
St. Jerome says the fact 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 terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.
As we Orthodox know, this early practice of referring to spiritual fathers and sons continued in the Church's life so that even today, monastic spiritual guides, father confessors, bishops and priests are frequently called "Father" by the people. What Jesus condemns is the use or acceptance of any titles and dignity which stands between God and man. Jesus is not primarily speaking here of words, but of an attitude. To consider a person a "Father" in a way that obscures the Fatherhood of God is what He criticizes. When Christians use it to refer to God's representatives, all it does is remind them of the Divine Father. In the same way Christ forbids us in Matthew 23:10 to submit ourselves to independent teachers who obscure the one Master Teacher. (Harakas, 455 Q&A, p.267)
So, if someone asks us, "Who is your father?", we can answer, "I have my natural father whom I call 'dad' or 'baba'. And I have my spiritual father, the 'papa' or 'pater', the priest who leads me and guides through the gospel of Jesus Christ to my one God and Father in heaven who has adopted me as His child." Let us imitate our natural and paternal fathers as they prayerfully and humbly intercede to Christ our God for our physical and spiritual healing. Amen!