What does scripture mean by “call no man father?”

by Father Patrick Parks

AskAPriest

Father Patrick Parks

A couple of months ago I was introduced by a Catholic friend to one of his friends who was Protestant. He introduced me as “Father Parks” and after one look at the collar, the man pulled back from a welcoming gesture. My friend caught the slight and mentioned out-loud, “Oh, call no man father, I understand.”

It was one of those awkward moments that should have been put to rest years ago but still lingers in the minds of both Protestants and Catholics alike.

In Matthew 23:9 Jesus says, “Call no man on earth your father, for you have one father in heaven.” Therefore, those who interpret that passage literally believe that calling a priest “Father” violates a direct command of Jesus. I think the quick and easy answer to this is that Jesus was using, in this instance and on others, what we would call figurative speech, or hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) in order to correct a serious error on the part of the men he is addressing.

This passage can be compared to Matthew 5:29 where our Lord says “and if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.” I do not think anyone really believes that our Lord expects us to do that, otherwise most of us would be blind. Our Lord is overemphasizing this point because he is talking about the seriousness of sin, which could mean the difference between heaven and hell for a soul who has strayed far from obeying his commandments. He wants us to understand that there can be severe consequences for our actions.

We know that this literary device is also used in Matthew 23 because there are passages in both the Old and the New Testament where God contradicts “Call no man on earth your father” if it were to be taken literally. In Exodus 20:17, God commands man to “Honor thy father and mother” as one of the commandments. He repeats these words in the New Testament in Matthew's Gospel when the rich young man asks what he must do to be saved.

Therefore, it is safe to say that God himself considers others to be fathers, and Jesus presents this commandment to “Honor thy father” as a prerequisite for attaining eternal life. In Luke 16:24, Jesus will use the term “Father Abraham” in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. St. Paul will also use this same term for Abraham in Romans 4:16 to show us that Abraham is a spiritual father to all of us. St. Stephan, who the Bible said was “filled with the Holy Ghost,” will use the term “father or fathers” some 20 times in his defense speech right before he is stoned to death.

When you take Matthew 23 in context, as was done with “plucking your eye out” in Matthew 5:29, we see that Jesus is having the original and proverbial “come to Jesus” moment with the Pharisees and the scribes who had positioned themselves in the place of God. Jesus is condemning their actions in the strongest possible terms for their severe disobedience in terms of love of God and neighbor.

This severe correction by Jesus is a “pluck your eye out” moment of truth for these men who sit on the seat of Moses, but use their authority for their own gain and profit. This, then, is a condemnation of their actions and not the term “father.” Otherwise we would have to say that the Bible is full of contradictions, which cannot be the case since God cannot contradict himself. Jesus is warning people against attributing fatherhood, or a particular degree of fatherhood to those who do not have it.

When you take the Bible as a whole, it is clear that it is proper and biblical to call priests “Father.” The New Testament is clear in its teaching of a spiritual fatherhood. In the Holy Gospels, Jesus commissions the twelve apostles, and future bishops of the Church, to go out in his name and with his authority from the Father. Those who would accept them were accepting him and his Father. Jesus, the High Priest, at the Last Supper, will institute the ministerial priesthood to act in his person with the authority of the Father to beget spiritual children through the sacraments of grace. Insofar as they uniquely participate in the spiritual begetting of God’s children, their successors, today’s bishops and priests are our spiritual fathers. We can see this in St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians 4:14-15:

“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.”

Paul is referring to the Corinthians as his children and himself as a father to them spiritually through the Gospel. Paul expands on this spiritual fatherhood in 2 Timothy 2: 1-2:

“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

Paul is affirming “spiritual fatherhood” over Timothy again, but also speaks of Timothy's spiritual fatherhood over others and the passing on, or succession, of spiritual fatherhood from him to others.

Priests, then, are instrumental in bringing God's people into a life of grace through the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins. From the beginning of the spiritual life to its end, they are the fathers who nurture and sustain that life and therefore ought rightly to be called “father.”

Father Parks serves as the parochial vicar of St. John’s Church in Wahpeton. He can be reached at patrick.parks@fargodiocese.org.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.