31st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached November 4, 2017; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. These words have often been used by the proponents of ‘Scripture alone’ to attack the Catholic Church. The quick argument is, “You call priests, ‘Father’. That is against the Bible.” The quick retort is, “Your argument proves too much, you call your biological dads, ‘Father’.”
This back and forth of argument and retort, however, does not lead us to a real understanding of Jesus’ words; instead it reveals a lack of understanding. The argument and retort shows us that there is something more here than meets the eye, but to attain the understanding of that something more we need to ask for light from the Holy Spirit in prayer and we also need to apply our minds.
First, let us consider what lies behind the criticism of the priesthood.
It is indeed very easy to find fault with the priesthood, especially with individual priests. In today’s 1st reading God himself, through the prophet Malachi rebukes his priests. Indeed, because of the crimes and cover-ups of some priests the words seem to be fulfilled in today’s world; priests have indeed become contemptible and base before all the people.
At the same time, the image of brotherhood set forth by Jesus seems very attractive. Since the Protestant reformation began 500 years ago the ideal of an equal brotherhood has been set in opposition to the corrupt authority of a pharisaical priesthood; the priesthood does not seem to have fared very well.
It is very easy to criticize priests and the priesthood, but the question is after 500 years are we any closer to brotherhood?
In his first Encylical Letter Pope Francis wrote: “Modernity sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure. We need to return to the true basis of brotherhood.” (Lumen Fidei 54)
The Protestants attacked the paternal authority of Popes, bishops, and priests in the Catholic Church; kings and princes joined in on the attack. Unwittingly they undermined their own authority. Back in the day it was fathers of families who led the charge against the paternal authority of kings and princes. Unwittingly they undermined their own authority. Now the very word, ‘patriarchy’ is used a word of condemnation, rather like ‘fascism’, indicating an inherently oppressive regime. Finally, though, it is the paternal authority of God himself that has been called into question in the attempt to establish a universal brotherhood, a regime of equality, without a common fatherhood.
Today’s world prizes equality and that poses a practical problem for authority of every kind (including divine authority) because evidently any relationship involving authority is unequal.
Without authority there is no unity. So it is that lacking any commonly recognized and respected legitimate authority we have reached a point of extreme social and political fragmentation. It has reached a point where communication between groups holding radically different views of reality and human life seems nearly impossible.
Is this the point to which the very words of Jesus, Call no one on earth your father, have led us, or are we missing something?
Maybe what we are missing is a passage that was left out of today’s 1st reading. The prophet, whose name means ‘My Messenger’, speaking in the person of the Lord himself, declares: The lips of the priest are to keep knowledge, instruction is to be sought from his mouth, because he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. (Mal 2:7)
As a messenger, the priest stands in the middle between God and his people. That means also that while, as a human being he is on a level of equality with the rest, as a messenger of God he also shares in God’s own authority and is raised up above the people. Both priest and prophet remind us that God does not exercise his authority directly over his people but guides his people by means of human intermediaries who share in his own authority.
Returning, then, to today’s Gospel. When Jesus tells his disciples to call no man ‘Rabbi’, father, or ‘Master’, he is pointing to the fatherhood of God as the supreme authority and showing us that any legitimate exercise of authority by men is a sharing in that authority of God. The human authority always stands as an intermediary, a messenger, who possesses no authority in his own right, but whose only legitimacy can derive from God.
A messenger must be completely selfless, completely at the service of the one who sends him. The scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel loved their positions of authority, their ‘first places’ because of the honor it brought to their own persons. They became opaque, we might say, to the one who sent them, the origin of their authority.
Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God made man, sets a contrary example when he says, I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. (Jn 6:38) And, My teaching is not my own but is from the one who sent me. (Jn 7:16) Then to his Apostles he says, As the Father has sent me, so I send you. (Jn 20:21)
So we have a sharing in the very authority of God descending from the Father, through Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, and being extended to the Apostles and then continuing from them to every time and place through the succession of bishops and their collaborators, the priests. That authority is not lost because of abuse; the authority is not lost, but it becomes opaque.
What is true of priestly authority is true of all authority; ultimately any legitimate authority means sharing in the supreme authority of God. Just as the authority of a priest and bishop is a sharing in divine authority, so the authority of a father of a family is a sharing in divine authority, so also any legitimate governing authority is a sharing in divine authority.
St. Paul writes, Let every person be subject to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who appoint it will bring judgment upon themselves. (Rm 13:1-2)
What all this comes to then is the paradox of true equality: true equality and true brotherhood can only be achieved beneath the fatherhood of God, but we can only be bound together beneath the fatherhood of God if we accept the unequal human roles that result from the different kinds of human authority. God himself has established these authorities in human life in order to manifest and make present his own supreme authority.
The whole of the western world has been shaken to the core by a radical rejection of authority, dating back at least to the time of Martin Luther. That means that the restoration of authority, of paternal authority, within the Church, within the family, within the nation, is an indispensable part of the path to peace and brotherhood. That restoration, however, requires not only the respect and obedience on the part of the people, but the worthy and selfless conduct of leaders.
The proud leader seeks the first place, the humble leader empties himself out so that the divine authority might be made manifest through him.
Note well, that I have spoken about authority first of all as paternal, not maternal. That is that way it is. The mother makes the father known to the children and her selfless role is to lead the children to know, love, and respect their father.
It is no different with the Holy Mother of God and our Mother. She helps us to know and love God and she tells us, Do whatever he tells you. (Jn 2:5) If you are worried about the lack of equality, then take note that beneath God the highest place does not belong to any paternal authority, but to the Holy Mother of God. For a creature, it is a greater thing to share in God’s holiness than to share in God’s authority. Sharing in God’s holiness is what makes us truly to become brothers and sisters to one another and finally even brothers and sisters of Our Lord Jesus Christ himself.