By Jonathan A. Mitchican
“Call no one father on earth, for you have one Father — your Father in heaven.” Well, now, how is Father Jonathan going to explain this one? It hasn’t happened often, but occasionally people tell me that this verse is the reason why they don’t want to call me Father.
Clearly I’m not following the Bible if I call myself that, nor are all of the other priests of the world. Jesus says to call no one on earth father. It’s pretty plain and straightforward. What could be easier to understand than that?
But if we’re going to take what Jesus says at face value, then we have to admit that there are a lot of people who are going to need new names. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Call no priest father.” He says, “Call no one on earth father.” Which means that you shouldn’t call your own father father. And don’t think that you can pull a fast one by calling him Dad or Daddy instead. God will see right through that.
No, you’re just going to have to call him by his first name from now on. But we can’t stop there. What about the fathers of our country? Washington, Jefferson, Madison? Well, that’s got to go. From now on we’ll just call them “The guys with the funny wigs.” And what about the rest of what Jesus says? About calling no one “Rabbi” or “Instructor”? The Greek words here mean teacher or professor or even Doctor. Next time you’re at the doctor’s office, be sure to tell your physician to get used to being called “Mister” or “Miss.”
In the fourth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul says, “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” What’s up with that? Paul knows that Jesus said not to call anyone father, yet here he is calling himself father and telling the Corinthians to do the same. Either Paul is blatantly disregarding Jesus’ teaching or there’s more to what Jesus is saying than meets the eye. So let’s take a look at the context.
In the preceding chapters of Matthew, which we’ve been looking at over the past couple of months, Jesus has been constantly drawn into debates by the Pharisees, the scribes, and other religious leaders who’ve tried to trick him or discredit him in some way. Jesus has proven over and over again that the Pharisees and the scribes and even the chief priests are hypocrites who are deceitful and self-centered.
But now, after a long string of these debates, Jesus turns to the people and tells them to show respect to the Pharisees and the scribes by following what they teach. This may seem like a strange move, given all that we’ve learned about the Pharisees and the scribes, but Jesus explains that the Pharisees and the scribes “sit on Moses’ seat,” meaning that they have the authority to preach and teach because they’ve inherited the ministry that has come down to them from Moses, just as bishops and priests today have inherited the ministry that’s come down to them from the apostles. And so long as the Pharisees and scribes teach only what’s in the Holy Scriptures, their teaching can be trusted because it’s God’s Word.
But Jesus adds a note of caution. “Do whatever they teach you,” He says, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” And then Jesus lists the many ways in which the Pharisees and scribes seek their own glory rather than the glory of God. They put heavy burdens upon the people. They show off the clothing of their office so people will see them and think how special they are. They love being given the best seats at banquets. And they love the exalted names that people call them by — Rabbi, teacher, master, father. And so Jesus says not to call men by these names, because there is only one Rabbi, only one teacher, only one master, only one father — the Lord our God.
What Jesus is doing here is reminding us of what these earthly titles are supposed to be about. And it’s a good reminder for us, because we often think about this backward. When we call God our Father, we think that it’s because God is sort of like a human father. But what Jesus is telling us here is that it’s the other way around. We don’t learn what God is like by looking at our human fathers. We learn what human fathers are supposed to be like by looking at God.
When we call a human being father, we’re saying that this man is fulfilling a role that comes from God. All forms of human fatherhood are signs that point us back to God. The love that a father shows for his wife and children, the way he teaches them, the way he provides for them, the authority he exercises in the household — all of these things are fatherly because they mimic what God the Father does for us.
And when Paul tells the Corinthians that he’s their “father in Christ,” he means that he will teach them the gospel, guide them, set an example for them, and protect them in their faith, just as the Father in heaven does. And the same is true of priests. When you call me Father Jonathan, it’s because I am your father in God not by my own merits but because by virtue of my office, I am called to act in certain ways as a father to you, guiding you in your faith. My fatherhood is meant to point you away from me and toward your one Father in heaven.
I’ve known people who’ve had a very difficult time calling God Father because their fathers walked out on them or abused them in some way. And since they always thought that we call God our Father because he’s like our human fathers, this put a huge distance between them and God.
But when they learned that in fact God is our Father, and that the human man that they call their father only gets to have that title if he models the fatherhood of God, they were able to rejoice, because they knew now that the guy who’d done those bad things to them wasn’t really their father. Our one true Father is God, and he will love us, protect us, teach us, and provide for us, even when the men we’ve called fathers fail us. Human fathers are fallible and sinful. Our Father in heaven is loving and perfect.
Now this places a pretty big responsibility on those of us who are called fathers, because we have a lot to live up to, and we will mess things up from time to time. We’re not God. We’re sinners. But if we can remember that our fatherhood is not our own, but God’s, we’ll be able to exercise the ministry of fatherhood that’s been given to us in a way that points the people we love and care for away from us and toward him.
The Rev. Jonathan Mitchican is chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas.