“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). For years, Protestant polemicists have quoted this verse as a proof text against the Catholic custom of addressing a priest as Father. (It is not clear whether they extend the prohibition to Mother.)
Many Episcopal priests have experienced earnest evangelical Protestants addressing them as “Pastor,” to avoid falling foul of Jesus’ stricture, and Roman Catholics pointedly addressing them as “Reverend” to imply inauthentic priesthood. To complicate matters, some clergy now encourage parishioners to use their first names. But use of Father or Mother is still widespread, sometimes in combination with the first name.
In any case, Jesus’ saying really does not apply to contemporary forms of address for clergy. It occurs in the context of his denunciation of the Pharisees, who love “to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” But his disciples are not to behave in this way. And he names three forms of address they should avoid.
First, they are not to be called rabbi (teacher), for they have one teacher, and they are all brothers. Here, unfortunately, the NRSV botches the translation by substituting students for brethren (adelphoi). Brothers and sisters would have been the better inclusive translation. The significance of brethren in this instance becomes clear in the next verse, when Jesus completes the thought: “You have one Father, the one in heaven.”
Second, for this very reason, they are to call no one on earth father. Taken literally, this prohibition would extend even to one’s biological father — and that is precisely Jesus’ point, as will become clear.
Third, they are not to be called instructors (RSV: masters) because they have one instructor, the Messiah (or Christ). The first and third admonitions thus concern what Jesus’ disciples should not be called, while the middle admonition concerns what they are not to call others.
The theme running through all three prohibitions is Jesus’ concern to maintain unity and concord among his disciples. When individuals allow themselves to be called rabbi or master, it usually means they are gathering followings around them, a prospect that portends factionalism, division, conflict, and strife.
Most of all, in ancient Israel as in the rest of the ancient world, people identified themselves over and against one another by their ancestry. The deep radicalism of Jesus’ command is that it deprives people of the ability to make social distinctions based on who their parents, grandparents, or more distant ancestors were: “I’m of the tribe of Aaron,” “I’m of the tribe of Benjamin.” Fellow disciples should now regard one another as brothers and sisters precisely as sons and daughters of the same Father in heaven. A new spiritual family is coming into being to replace earthly families, tribes, and nations as the object of the disciples’ ultimate loyalty and allegiance.
Among the disciples, and later in the Church, unity and concord result from each person avoiding self-exaltation and seeking to be the servant of all — behavior diametrically opposed to the self-aggrandizing behavior of the Pharisees whom Jesus denounces in this passage. The prohibitions in today’s Gospel serve this purpose.
Look It Up
Compare this interpretation of Matthew 23:1-12 with St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and 3:1-9.
Think About It
How much truth was there in the 19th-century liberal Protestant slogan proclaiming the essence of the Gospel as “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man”?