“As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ . . . . Call no one on earth your father … Do not be called ‘Master’ . . . .” (Mt 23:8-10)
At first glance, it seems that following Jesus involves abandoning all formal names and official titles—teacher, father, master—as if the Church should be some sort of folksy commune. And there are at least some Christians who look upon the Catholic custom of calling priests “father” as sure proof of their ignorance of Scripture. However, not even the first generation of Christians took Jesus to be condemning all names of social standing. After all, the Evangelists don’t scruple to call Joseph and Mary the “father and mother” of Jesus (e.g., Lk 2:33). St. Paul even calls himself the “father” of the Church in Corinth, reminding them, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1Cor 4:15).
But if Jesus isn’t simply condemning the words “teacher,” “father,” and “master,” what is he up to? There’s a similar episode from the life of the Chinese Philosopher Confucius that may give us a clue. A disciple posed to Confucius the following question:
“The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?
“What is necessary is to correct names . . . . If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success” (Analects 13.3).
From this isolated saying, Confucius seems to be making an attack on names themselves. A mysterious suggestion. However, Confucius clarifies his words elsewhere:
“Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.” (Analects 12.11).
What Confucius is really suggesting, in other words, is not the correction of words, but the correction of behavior. But he also seems to think that words pick out timeless standards of conduct, “the truth of things.” And the project of correcting names means persuading people to live up to the “truth”of each title.
Christ perhaps intended something similar with his prohibition of the names “rabbi,” “father,” and “master” (καθηγητής)– demanding not a reform of titles, but that those who bear the titles reform themselves according to the “truth of things.” And Jesus is clear about where the “truth of things” lies: “You have but one teacher . . . . you have but one Father in heaven. . . . you have but one master, the Christ” (Mt 23:8-10). The true standard for all our titles is God—and not just any God, but the God who suffered and died for us.
If we understand the Gospel this way, our examination of conscience can be more searching. The modern-day Pharisee isn’t only the uptight legalist or the religious snob. He is anyone who gladly accepts titles of position without accepting their divine standard into his heart. He is anyone who wants to write his own job description rather than abide by the description written in the heavens.
Given this spin, playing the Pharisee becomes more natural than we think. Deacons, priests, and bishops can meditate on this image of the Pharisees with a good measure of holy fear. But parents too have a lot to live up to in their titles; they are father, mother, and–as the Rite of Baptism puts it– the “first teachers in the faith.”
By insisting on but “one Father in heaven,” Jesus makes the true standard of parenthood the love of His Father, who puts his children’s interests before His own. In light of this standard, we can see why the Church opposes family arrangements now common in our society, such as men and women living together and raising families without marrying in the Church. Every year sees the publication of new studies showing that, in order truly to flourish, in order truly to feel at ease in the world, children require the stability that only marriage provides. Other arrangements are inevitably ways of putting the interests of adults before children’s, of accepting fatherhood and motherhood “on one’s own terms” rather than according to the “truth of things.”
There’s also a lot to meditate on in the title, “first teachers in the faith.” The Gospel presents Jesus as the true standard for teachers because, unlike the Pharisees, he practices what he teaches. Applying the standard of Christ to our own lives, there are countless questions we can ask: Do my children ever see me study the faith at home? Do they see my love for the poor? Do they see me pray? Every morning before school my own father used to wake our family up 15 minutes early so that we could pray. He would wait for us in the living room, where we would spend the first minutes of the day in prayerful silence. As you can imagine, I wasn’t gushing with gratitude at the time. But that kind of teaching makes a deep impression.
In sum, today’s Gospel leaves us with a question we can all ponder. How can I better imitate Christ in the living out of my “names”? Happily, Christ differs from Confucius on one other important point. He never points out the standard without giving the grace necessary to meet it. He offers us strength in his sacraments. He offers forgiveness for our sins. His whole life promises that resurrection follows every sacrifice. He gives us not only our “names,” but the power of his name too.