Jesus and Fathers
John Hemer MHM
For Catholics who customarily address their priests as ‘father’ the saying of Jesus in Mt. 23:9: You must call no man on earth your father since you have only one father and he is in heaven is problematic. The church’s detractors gleefully quote this as an example of how far we have strayed from the true teaching of Christ. A simple way of dealing with this objection is to ask people what they call their mother’s husband, and to remind them that in the very next verse Jesus says: nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, since you have only one teacher, the Christ. That would seem to put a lot more people on the wrong side of the argument. But that is not the point. There is no suggestion in Church history that Christians ever had a problem with how to address their parents, and to imagine that the second person of the Trinity became incarnate in order to teach us how to address the clergy is pushing things a little.
To understand this passage we need to turn to John’s gospel Ch. 8, v.41. Jesus is speaking to a group of people who had shown faith in him and he was trying to get them to go further and admit that because of sin they were slaves, and they needed him to set them free. Jesus has also suggested that because of their behaviour, they cannot really claim God as their father and we join the scene when they reply: They only father we have is God. Jesus answered: If God were your father, you would love me. Now pause. Jesus says in effect that God is not their father. Does that mean that they were not made by God? Clearly not. He means that the God he reveals is not the guiding principle of their lives. For ‘father’, read ‘guiding principle’. The true God, the loving, peaceful Father who persecutes nobody cannot be the one who guides their lives since they have purposed to kill him. The real God would never have anyone kill another person in his name and Jesus presses the point home in V. 44. You are from your father, the devil and you prefer to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the start. Even though they think they are doing God’s will by killing Jesus whom they consider a blasphemer, this mere fact shows that their guiding principle is a violent, persecuting one, which Jesus calls the devil. (At this point we must note that many people have considered the Gospel of John to be anti-Semitic since Jesus is addressing the Jews here. John is not saying that the Jews are children of the devil, but that when people persecute others in the name of God they are in fact doing the work of the devil. That applied then to those who killed Jesus, sadly in the history of the Church many Christians fell into the same trap. When people use this text against the Jews, they commit the same sin as those particular Jews did at the time of Jesus.)
But we digress. In Jesus’ world, one’s father, the elders, the family, the culture all represented an enormously powerful force. As in any traditional society, there were all sorts of laws, directions, unwritten rules and assumptions which guided people’s lives and woe betide anyone who tried to break away from them. In fact the substance of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees was that they were more attached to religious custom than to God. For many of them it was almost impossible to see that there might be any distinction between the two. To put it more simply: for many people the things their father (i.e. culture) told them to do were one and the same as the will of God. We know from the sad history of religious wars, crusades, inquisitions and suicide bombers how wrong, how absolutely deadly indeed evil that idea can be. So Jesus must help people to make a distinction between their culture (or if you like, they way they do things or the things they learn from their parents and relatives) and God. So call no man on earth your father is another way of saying: “make nothing of this world your absolute guiding principle”. Whenever my nationality, or customs or race or status or whatever becomes the most important thing to me, I will almost always end up going against the will of God.
The history of our salvation begins with God’s words to Abraham: Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country which I shall show you (Gen. 12:1) That statement means that for everyone who wishes to follow Abraham’s example and be led by the true God, faith will involve this sort of thing in one way or another. To have God as our Father, to call God our Father means that ultimately we owe one hundred percent loyalty to him alone. To call anything or anyone else ‘father’, to be totally loyal to anything else, is to run the risk of rebelling against God.