“CALL NO MAN FATHER ON EARTH (Mt 23:9)”
What did Our Lord really mean with these words?
I have been asked several times the following question by our non-Catholic Christian brethren: “FATHER, DO YOU MIND IF I JUST CALL YOU BROTHER?” I really don’t mind but I would like to point out an ERRONEOUS INTERPRETATION of the Gospel verse which is the origin of this question.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew 23: 1-12, Our Lord Jesus Christ addressed himself to the crowd saying:
“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven (Mt 23:9).”
Taken as it is, in a LITERAL way and OUT OF CONTEXT, it SEEMS that Our Lord prohibits calling any man on earth as father, except God.
- BUT THIS LITERAL INTERPRETATION LOSES GROUND AND BECOMES INVALID if we are to think that God Himself gave us the loving commandment:
“Honor your father and your mother
(Exodus 12:20; Matthew 15:1–9, Matthew 19:17–19, Mark 10:17–19, Luke 18:18–21; Eph 6:12).”
With the argument above, it is evident that OUR LORD DOES NOT PROHIBIT CALLING ANYONE “FATHER”, AS REGARDS TO NATURAL FATHERS AND SPIRITUAL FATHERS as well. WHY?
- We can find in the New Testament where the inspired authors used the term “father” referring to both natural and spiritual fatherhood.
- As regards NATURAL FATHERHOOD, St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews 12:7-11 states:
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
- With respect to SPIRITUAL FATHERHOOD, St. Paul’s 1st Letter to Corinthians 4:14-17 explicitly speaks of a spiritual paternity, calling them and Timothy as his children, and referring to himself as their “father in Jesus Christ through the Gospel”:
“I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.”
- The above idea could also be found in his following texts, where St. Paul’s spiritual fatherhood extends to Titus (Tit 1:4), Onesimus (Philem 10), and Timothy (1 Cor 4:17; Phil 2:22; 1 Tim 1:2, 18).
- Furthermore, SPIRITUAL FATHERHOOD could be traced back in the Old Covenant where God elevated Aaron and his Levitical sons (Ex 40:12-15) to be the fathers and priests of the tribal family of Israel (Jdg 17:10; 18:19). The same principle carries over on a spiritual level and extends to the New Covenant, where Christ, the ultimate High Priest, sacramentally ordains men to the ministry of spiritual fatherhood for “the priestly service of the gospel” (Rm 15:16).
- Having established then that JESUS DID NOT PROHIBIT CALLING MEN AS FATHER BOTH IN THE NATURAL AND SPIRITUAL VIEWPOINTS, what did Jesus mean then when he said “call no one on earth your father”? Let us read the entire Gospel passage to understand what he wanted to transmit.
“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. 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. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
- If read considering the context, the phrase “call no one on earth your father” is actually a WARNING so as NOT TO AMBITION AND DESIRE HONORIFIC CONDITION, TREATMENT, TITLES AND SUPERIORITY OVER AND ABOVE OTHERS IN THIS LIFE, as the scribes and Pharisees had done, moved by their pride. This idea could be deduced and is confirmed in the last verse, v. 9: The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
- Therefore, when Jesus said “call no one on earth your father,” he was using a HYPERBOLE, that is an extravagant expression not to be taken literally.
WITH THE ABOVE ARGUMENTS, WE CONCLUDE THAT IT IS NOT AGAINST THE TEACHING OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES NOR OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST TO CALL OUR NATURAL FATHERS AND THE ORDAINED PRIESTS AS “FATHER.”
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