by Father Mark Stubbs
What do you call your male biological parent? Do you call him “Father”?
If you do, that would appear to go against Jesus’ saying in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 23: 1-12, where he tells us: “Call no one on earth your father.”
Some fundamentalist Protestants latch on to the verse in order to denigrate the Catholic practice of addressing a priest as “Father.” Formerly, in English-speaking countries, that title was reserved for religious order priests. But it was extended to diocesan priests during the 19th century, to increase respect for them.
In any case, we do not interpret the words of Christ literally. For example, St. Paul claims the title of father for himself when he writes: “Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:15). If St. Paul can do it, so can we.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is cautioning religious leaders against taking pride in any titles they are accorded — whether it is rabbi, father, monsignor or your excellency.
Similarly, he warns against places of honor that they might receive at dinners or other public events. Focusing on these honors can detract them from their true purpose.
At the same time, Jesus encourages religious leaders to temper their authority with mercy. He criticizes their harshness toward their flocks:
“They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” In contrast, Jesus instructs us: “The greatest among you must be your servant.”
The role of servant, to which all Christians are called, receives formal recognition in the ministry of deacons. The word “deacon” derives from the Greek word for “servant.”
Deacons are called to exemplify that aspect of the Christian by their service to the church. Their lives are meant to illustrate for us all how to carry out that instruction of Christ.
In his criticism of religious leaders, Jesus says in the Gospel reading: “For they preach but they do not practice.” In contrast, at their ordinations, deacons are handed a copy of the Book of the Gospels and told: “Believe what you read, preach what you believe, and practice what you preach.”
By practicing what they preach, deacons and all religious leaders can avoid the pitfalls that Jesus discusses in the Gospel reading. Pride goes before a fall.
Similarly, the Gospel reading reminds us: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”