IN the gospel Jesus says we should call no one on earth “father”, since God is our only father. How are we to understand this, when we all call our earthly father “father”? And how do we answer some non-Catholics who use this passage to say we should not call priests “father”?
Jesus did indeed say: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (Mt 23:9).
How are we meant to understand this? Clearly, Jesus was not forbidding us to call our earthly father “father”, any more than he was forbidding us to call our earthly mother “mother”. Nothing is more natural and time-honoured than to refer to our parents by these titles.
Jesus himself used these titles to refer to our earthly parents: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:37)
Indeed, it is only because we understand what earthly fatherhood means that we can grasp the meaning of divine fatherhood, of calling God “our Father”.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man… [God] also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father” (CCC 239). Thus it is clear that Jesus does want us to refer to our earthly parents as father and mother.
We also use the term “father” in a spiritual sense, and this usage too is found in Scripture. For example, in the Old Testament, Joseph says that God “has made me a father to Pharaoh” (Gen. 45:8), Job says that “I was a father to the poor” (Job 29:16), and Elisha cries out, “My father, my father!”, as Elijah is carried up into heaven (2 Kgs 2:12). Here it is a matter of calling father one who cares for another in a spiritual sense.
This usage is found also in the New Testament. St Paul often refers to the first Christians as his children and to himself as their father. For example, he writes to the Corinthians: “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” (1 Cor 4:14-15). Elsewhere he writes: “But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.” (Phil 2:22)
St Paul had suffered much in planting the seed of the faith in the first Christian communities and he had a deep love for them, feeling himself truly their father. And the people would have regarded St Paul as their spiritual father.
From this biblical usage it is easy to understand how Catholics, and some other Christians as well, have come to call their priests “Father”. Priests, after all, pour themselves out for their people and have a deep spiritual bond with them. They feel themselves fathers to their people in a real sense.
What did Jesus mean, then, when he said not to call anyone on earth “father”? He was obviously only trying to point out that, while we use the term “father” to refer to different people on earth, and it is quite appropriate to do so, no one is father as God is. God is the one from whom all earthly fatherhood takes its name (cf. Eph 3:15) God is father in the truest sense. He is “the first origin of everything and transcendent authority” and “he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children.” (CCC 239) Earthly fathers have these qualities only in a limited way.
We should not forget either that at the same time as Jesus said not to call anyone on earth father, he also said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren… Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.” (Mt 23:8,10) He was speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, who in their pride loved to be called rabbi, teacher or master, and to have their authority recognised by others. Jesus clearly did not mean that we should call no one teacher, since he sent the apostles out to teach (cf. Mt 28:19-20) and St Paul frequently refers to himself as a teacher (cf. 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11).
In summary, Jesus is not forbidding us to call anyone on earth father, or teacher or master. He is only reminding the scribes and Pharisees, and all of us, that when we do this, we should always remember that only God is the true father, teacher and master.