This Sunday, we will celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In preparation, I encourage you to think of at least three persons you can name with thanksgiving who have already entered into eternal life. Perhaps one person from the pages of scripture or church history; one who is a friend; and the one person you most miss this year. All too often, in our broken world, we can name far more than three. Thankfully, in a world charged and changed through Jesus’ resurrection, the days of our separation are irreversibly counting down. This feast of All Saints gives us an opportunity to remember and reorient to the mystery of Christ and his body, the church. Our scriptures for Sunday highlight this good news as well as these holy people that we know by experience and by reputation through the love of God.
The Gospel reading originally appointed for Sunday raises a question often asked as we hear Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees. While all of Matthew chapter 23 clarifies Jesus’ intent, you can look into the window of the problem in verse 9, where Jesus says,
“And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
Imagine how happy we were to celebrate All Saints (or any feast day) on Sunday and avoid or save that verse until another day.
You are nearly right. As you know, it is customary in some parts of the Anglican church to refer to ordained pastors (priests, presbyters, elders and bishops) as father. Knowing this custom and knowing that this passage is appointed for us to read publicly in the church, we might think to ourselves, “Perhaps we should stop doing one or the other.” Instead, it might be helpful to walk through the passage and its challenge together.
The verse begins with a prohibition, but the indictment is not ultimately about nomenclature, but about leadership. Leadership being modeled so deleteriously by the scribes and Pharisees and contrasted so powerfully by Jesus. This larger leadership issue clarifies the meaning of the verse and opens all of us up to its challenges. We might describe this challenge in terms of value, loyalty, and integrity.
First, Jesus’ prohibition of the title father (and rabbi/ teacher or instructor/master) is best seen as hyperbole designed to create a strong contrast of value. It immediately urges us to imagine what valuable thing we would lose if we lived without these roles in our lives. It is unlikely that Jesus intended a complete prohibition of the use of the term father, since the scriptures Jesus upheld used the term, (Exodus 20.12; 2 Kings 13.14; Psalm 44.1) Jesus himself used the term, (Matthew 15.4-5; John 8.56) and Jesus’ deacons (Acts 7.2-53) and apostles used the term (Acts 22.1; 1 Cor 4.14-15, 10.1; 1 Thessalonians 2.11-12; Colossians 3.21; 2 Timothy 2.1; James 2.21; 1 John 2.12-13; 1 Peter 5.13). There are hundreds of examples. The term father was used throughout the Bible to describe a range of familial, relational and leadership roles. In summary, God the Father reveals himself as both the perfect Father and the source of all legitimate fatherhood in the creation. (Ephesians 3.14-15) While human parenting is imperfect and often broken, it is itself an image of the reality of the Father revealed by Jesus. (Hebrews 12.9-10)
Second, Jesus makes these demands to force a decision about loyalty. While the Pharisees and scribes asserted loyalty to the law and sat in Moses’ seat, Jesus reveals that their true loyalty is only to themselves. In contrast, Jesus urges his hearers and his disciples to clarify for themselves their loyalty to Jesus, the one sent to reveal the Father in heaven,(John 14.6-11) the one who both teaches with authority and fulfills the Law (Matthew 5.17-20, 7.28-29) and the one who instructs and guides in the way of life by being the Messianic lord who himself gives life. (John 11.24-26) Jesus’ disciples are not to include his voice among other voices, or refer him only to special situations, or to simply keep him on retainer among a range of other teachers and strategies. In Jesus’ own words, “No one can serve two masters, for you will love one and hate the other.” (Matthew 6.24) In fact, Jesus cleaves the issue of loyalty to its core when he says that to be his disciple, loyalty to him must trump all other human loyalties, including father and mother. (Luke 14.26)
The final challenge relates to the issue of integrity. All of us are included as we hear Jesus pronounce woe and rejection on those who practice hypocrisy in their leadership. Jesus says there is a great discrepancy between the outward actions of the Pharisees and their inward reality. (Matthew 23.3, 5-7) Jesus insists that those who follow him as true leaders will also create dissonance, not by hypocrisy but through leadership rooted in service. (11-12)
Here at New Covenant, many of you refer to your clergy as Father, priest, pastor, and one or two even say reverend. You often call us Carl, or Clint, or Dave, or Gabriel, or Christopher. Many of you just look at us and start talking. All of that is wonderful.
We read Jesus’ words and warning very carefully. The use of the title father is designed to communicate what you have a right to expect from the leaders of the church, and to challenge those who serve to live into that calling. Any priest who serves as a true spiritual father does so not through hypocrisy or domination, but through service, care and devotion that explicitly and purposefully submits to the unique value, loyalty, and integrity found only in Jesus Christ.
Leaders dare not imagine that they have earned the right to deference simply because of our ability to create dense, efficiently planned activities (Matthew 23.4), exclude undesirable inquirers, no matter how interested (13), use great energy or heroic effort to recruit others to our cause (15), teach people how to swear effectively and fashion loopholes in their commitments to God and others(16-22), obsess over details and neglect to teach the most vital truths (23-24) create a good impression but not prepare to truly serve or be hospitable (25-28) and maintain honorable traditions while avoiding the pressing issues of our own day (29-36). Those types of leaders are not fathers at all, but avoiding the title won’t avoid the judgment Jesus pronounces.
Jesus ends his critique by saying that, as an act of mercy for the sake of his people, he will not let these poor leaders have the only or final word. He will send leaders of another type, “prophets and sages and teachers” but finally, he tells the religious leaders and all Israel that he will not return to them until they are ready to say with the Psalmist (Matthew 23.39, Psalm 118.26, Matthew 21.9)
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Each Sunday as we open our ears and hearts to the worship of heaven, joining in the saints’ and angels’ Sanctus of “Holy, holy, holy,” we also affirm Jesus invitation for him to be among us. You know by heart what we say. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” In voicing that invitation, we welcome the one Messiah, the only-begotten of the Father, and our true teacher to be with us and to show his greatness as he girds himself and serves us with his own body and blood.
If you have questions, your priests are happy to talk with you. If you just want to wave hello in silence, that’s also fine. We can all agree to the singular value of Jesus person and ministry, to the call for all leaders to affirm and promote loyalty to Jesus, and the need for prayer as we help one another grow in our integrity as servants of Christ. Whatever we call one another.
grace and certain hope,