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Browsing Fr. Joel Hastings

Call no man father?

In the bible it says “you shall not call anyone on earth Father because you have but one Father in Heaven.” Why then are priests and dads called father? I
actually feel guilty calling anyone father but my heavenly Father. What else is appropriate to call priests other than Father?

         Might I approach the main part of the question from three angles – noting that after my three angles I hope that the question of “what else” to call the priest will hopefully not need an answer.

          First of all, let’s look at Jesus’ actual words from Matthew 23:9: “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” Plain as these words are, the larger context (Matthew 23:1-12) is not about what are acceptable and unacceptable titles; it is about the arrogance of the Pharisees and Scribes who present themselves as above everyone else and (consequently) lord over others the titles by which they are addressed – and that such an example is not to be followed by true disciples of Christ who are also leaders. Scripture scholars consistently say that Jesus’ words here are used in a manner of argumentation that is well known in His time and culture that uses an exaggerated point so as to emphasize another. In this case, the exaggerations would be to call no one Rabbi, Father, or Master (verses 8, 9, and 10, respectively). His point is that what is of greatest importance is humble and self-giving service – not what your title is. The titles for their part are not to be seen for their own sake as a source of respect. Rather, those who are of a state of life by which one or another title might be given to them ought to live according to the responsibility and integrity contained within their position/calling so as to be rightly dignified by the title – not vice versa.

         Second, (and related to the first) were Jesus speaking literally here, to be consistent with all of His words we would be in a whole set of troubles regarding
several other modern titles for people beyond just dads and priests. For if we carried His other words forward, we must be honest to acknowledge that the modern titles “mister,” “miss,” and “missus” are all derived from the word “master.” Thus, consistency would dictate that we call none of our elders/school teachers/anyone else whom we desire to respect in their state of life by Mr., Ms., or Mrs. This point, however, is small compared to the third point to be made. For, in a third angle to our original question, might we consider the deeper message of relationships and who Jesus calls us to be as His disciples. Jesus fully reveals to us that God is our Heaven Father – and thus our calling God “Father” ought to carry its own weight that is distinct from any and every other use of the title/familiar name “father.” On the other hand, it is also quite clear in Scripture that all who are fathers (and mothers, too, for that matter) have a particular type of relationship with those who either address them by the title or with whom they are connected in accord with the meaning of the title – as in a third person saying that a man “Abraham” is the father of a child “Isaac.” For proof of this point, see Matthew 1 and the genealogy of Jesus. More pertinently, even Jesus Himself in the parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) uses the title “father” in reference to Abraham. Finally, St. Paul address the Corinthians as their “father in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 4:15). In all of these uses (whether addressing God in heaven or other human beings) the key to fatherhood is much more than a title by which to be called. Each of these uses of “father” expresses a type of relationship present in the one who lives “fatherhood.”  God our Heavenly Father is, of course, the root and perfection of fatherhood (and motherhood, etc.). These attributes of God, however, are manifested in human beings relating to one another, whether as father, mother, or any other way of true relationship. Thus, it is truly not wrong to call a man with children father, (even if those children are “spiritual” as it is with priests in their relationship to and service of God’s people); nor is wrong to call a woman with children (biological or spiritual) “mother.”  For in all of these relationships, it is our call to witness to God and His love as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and in accord with all of his divine attributes. Our titles are not the source of dignity; it is God himself who is our true source of life and dignity, whom we are called to follow and imitate – no matter our position or title.


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