Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino

 

 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Call No Man Your Father

 

            We used to have a delivery man here at St. Ignatius who must have been in continual trouble with his bosses because he was never concerned with finishing his route in the allotted  time.  He used to like spending time chatting with me and the secretaries.  There was one problem though.  He could not figure out what to call me.   He would not call me “Father” because the leaders in his Church had instructed him to follow Matthew 23 literally and “call no man  father.” Actually, the translation says, “call no man my father,” but I was sensitive to his difficulty.  The only thing was that I told him it was not  OK with him calling me “Joe” in my own office.  So we settled on “Hey You.”

 

            Actually, I don’t think that the Lord was asking that his priests be called “Hey you,” in today’s Gospel.  Let’s look at this passage that we priests often skim through.  There are messages here about our relationship with God, as well as our own views of ourselves.

 

            First of all, Jesus is not banning the use of the term, “Father.”  In fact, he expects us to respect our physical fathers and to call them “father.”  He also tells us to respect our spiritual ancestors calling many of them, “Father.”  Abraham is often referred to as Father Abraham.  St. Paul will often remind people that he is their spiritual father.  The apostles and all who founded churches were called to be the fathers of those churches.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus also tells his disciples to call no one teacher.  But the New Testament continually refers to God’s appointing some to be teachers.  To find out what the passage, “call no one my father,” means, we need to look at it in its context in scripture.

 

            In Matthew 23, Jesus is focusing on the Pharisees.  They exalt themselves, looking for new ways to demand that people respect them. They wear headbands with pieces of cloth hanging on them called phylacteries.  On the phylacteries they write words of scripture so that every time they turn their heads the Word of God will be before their eyes, keeping  Proverbs 4:20-21 that says:

 

My son, give attention to my words;
Incline your ear to my sayings.

Do not let them depart from your sight;
Keep them in the midst of your heart.

 

The trouble was that the Pharisees were seeing God’s words but were not keeping God’s words.  They were just putting on a show of holiness so that others could be enlightened as to what wonderful people they were.  Jesus’ point was that the Pharisees were making religion about themselves, not about God.

 

            The Catholic priest is ordained to continue the loving work of the Father.  His fatherhood comes from God and must point to God.  I am called father because the mandate of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is to make the Father’s love real for His people.  When I don’t do that, then I don’t deserve to be called father.

 

            It is easy for a priest to use his position in the Church to point to himself instead of to God.  When that happens, priesthood is replaced by a sort of demagoguery. The priest acts as though he is the source of wisdom for all.  People then look to him as their guide instead of to God.  Sadly, there are many people who are so concerned with following a particular priest that they feel abandoned when that priest no longer holds a position of authority in the Church.  They made too much of the individual and not enough of the One the individual was pointing towards.  St. Paul ran into this difficulty after he left Corinth.  The people there divided into groups.  One group said that they belonged to Paul, who brought them the faith.  A second group said that they belonged to Apollos, a Christian missionary who came after Paul and who nurtured their faith.  Paul wrote the Corinthians that we all belong to God, not to this or that individual.  He reminded them in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plant, but it was God who gave the growth.

 

            Throughout history, the Church has suffered from human beings making a big deal out of themselves and thus serving their egos instead of serving God. They seem to have forgotten the last words of today’s Gospel, “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled.  Whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” Priests need to take as their guide the first American saint who was not a martyr, St. John Neuman of Philadelphia.  He wrote the pope that he was more than willing to give up ministry if he ever was ever viewed by Church authority or by anyone as an obstacle to people finding God.

 

            Matthew 23 isn’t just about priesthood, though.  It is about how all of us use our position in the Church.  We all have authority, some as priests, some as teachers, some as parents, some as catechists, etc.  Many of you are parents. Do you parents demand that your children respect you because you are on an ego trip and want someone in the world to look up to you?  Not if you are good parents.  If you are  good parents, and you are, you demand that your children  respect you as the representative of God in this stage of their lives.  You also want them to learn respect for all those whom God has given any form of authority. The same message can be applied to all of us in whatever share of authority the Lord has given us.  Most of us are confirmed.  That means that we are given positions of leadership in the Church. 

 

            Jesus also speak about teachers in today’s gospel. Many here are teachers.  You did not become a teacher because you were mocked when you were in school and sought a position that would demand the respect of children and teens. No, you became a teacher because you want to form the young into productive citizens of our country and of God’s Kingdom.  In that way you will continue the teaching ministry of Jesus Christ.  

 

            We are all involved in charitable ministries.  We don’t do this so we can have others respect us.  We reach out to others to serve Christ in the needy.  All here are people that others at school or work look towards when they are seeking to understand the working of God in their worlds. In whatever way this leadership is manifested in our lives, we have to be sure that we are leading others to God, not to a meeting of our own fan clubs.  Matthew 6:3 says, “let your right hand not know what your left hand is doing.”  That is hard to do when we are patting ourselves on our own backs.

 

            The basic message of today’s gospel is that everything we do must be about Jesus Christ, never about ourselves. We have to understand that we are His servants.  Our priests must manifest God’s fatherhood, not their own fatherhood.  Our teachers are part of the teaching ministry of Christ, and are teaching for his glory, not teaching for their own glory.  In all things, God must be exalted.  If that means at times stepping back while another continues the Work of God more effectively than we can, so be it.  It is better to humble ourselves and be exalted by God then to exalt ourselves and be humbled by God. That is the conclusion of today’s Gospel.

 

            Too many people use the Church to trumpet their own self worth.  That is not why we go to church.  That is not why we are Roman Catholics.  We go to church because we need God.  We are Catholic because Catholicism is the authentic way of finding God. We know what we are like without him.  But we also know the wonders that He works through us.

 

            We pray today that we might have the humility to be servants of the Lord.