holy cross sermon for pentecost 20, year a, october 30, 2011

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Today’s Gospel contains Jesus’ injunction to “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven,” (Matthew 23.9). This verse has been used by some Christians to criticize the Catholic practice of calling priests, “Father.” It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t regard this criticism as legitimate.

 

Firstly, we might note that Jesus wasn’t speaking English. He was probably speaking Aramaic or Hebrew, and the language of the New Testament, in which this injunction has come down to us, is Greek. So the English word, “Father,” with reference to human beings hasn’t been proscribed.

 

But those who say we can’t call priests “Father” might retort that the spirit of the law is what’s important here. That Jesus obviously didn’t mean only to proscribe the Hebrew or Greek words for “father,” but he was saying that we must not call people “father” or any equivalent words in any language.

 

But if that is so, then we can’t call our own fathers “Father,” or “dad” or anything else. After all, Jesus doesn’t say “don’t call priests ‘Father,’”. He says call “no man… on earth” “father.” So if the critics are right, we will have to come up with new words for our fathers, like maybe “living male relation who is married to my mother.” But while I know of many Christians who object to calling priests “father,” I’ve never heard of any who objected to calling biological fathers “father.”

 

Moreover, following this logic, we should note that the words “rabbi” and “master” are prohibited to us. The Greek word here translated “master” means “teacher” – as does the Latin word, magister, from which the English word “master” is derived. So if we are to be consistent, we will have to come up with new words for schoolmasters, teachers, instructors, doctors (which is another Latin word meaning “teacher”), and so forth.

 

I am only following this logic to demonstrate how very tedious it is, and by way of suggesting that those who use this passage to criticize the practice of calling priests “father” are probably motivated more by anti-Catholic sentiment than by a concern to be disciples of Jesus.

 

The truth is that Jesus was not concerned with setting up a system of rules with respect to nomenclature, morals, or anything else, the following of which would constitute the true body of his disciples. Rather, the opposite is the case. As Jesus said, “no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit,” (Luke 6.43). The badness or goodness of the tree determines how it behaves, not vice versa.

 

And so it is with Jesus and his disciples. There are, in fact, Gospel rules. There are precepts that must be followed. But keeping them is the fruit of the goodness, the LOVE, with which God fills us as we draw closer to him. “No good tree bears bad fruit.” If we bear bad fruit from time to time, it is only proof that God is not finished with us yet, and that we should continue to seek him when and where he wills to be found so that he can continue the process of transforming us into faithful sons and daughters.

 

So what IS Jesus saying in today’s Gospel reading? He is concerned with authority: “…you have one Father, who is in heaven,” “you have one master, the Christ.” The great exposition of Jesus’ teaching in this verse is 1 John 5.2-4:

 

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.

 

Love, faith, obedience. This is the dynamic Jesus is concerned with getting us to understand. We are to abide in the love of God, which means living in the relationship that Jesus has with his Father. As with every relationship, the way to foster it is by closeness and communication. And this means prayer and the sacraments. By these means, if we engage them with open hearts, we will gradually come to a better and better acquaintance with Jesus himself, we will learn that he is supremely lovely, supremely powerful, and therefore supremely trustworthy. We will come to understand from the heart that he cares for us, and that he is actively bringing about good in our lives, even in the middle of – and BY MEANS OF – circumstances that we find frightening or painful.

 

And this realization will lead to an increasing desire to remain with Jesus, to follow him, to listen for his voice, and to do what he says.

 

Why then does Jesus say all that stuff about calling no man father, etc.? Because he wants us to recognize the supremacy of God’s authority. “You have one Father, who is in heaven… you have one teacher, the Christ.” Every earthly authority, every earthly voice, is subordinate to that of God. And our ALLEGIANCE to every earthly voice, authority, ideology, or whatever, must be subordinate to our allegiance – from the heart – to God, to his plan, to his Kingdom.

 

This is why Jesus tells his hearers that they are, in fact, to do what the Scribes and Pharisees say, but that they are not to be like them. Because the Scribes and the Pharisees urged the people to be faithful to God; their voice harmonized with his. But they had forgotten the point of God’s plan from the beginning: to be united with all mankind in a communion of love. The special relationship that God established with the Jews was to that end, as God spoke to Abraham: “by your descendants shall ALL THE NATIONS of the earth bless themselves, because YOU have obeyed my voice,” (Genesis 22.18).

 

Blessing and life is God’s plan for us. It is what we attain through love, faith, and obedience. And not only that, but God’s will is to turn us into instruments of blessing and life for others, who have never known God. We are the descendents of Abraham because we share his faith in the living God, and by our love for him, our trust in him, and our putting that love and trust into action, we are supposed to be beacons of life and blessing and transformation for people in the world around us. They should be able to see us – the way we live our lives as individuals and as a community –  and thereby come to know that God loves them, and be brought out of their bondage to destruction and come into the same transformative pattern of life that we live as members of Christ’s Body.

 

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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