How do people get around this verse? “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I am a literalist at heart or at least am drawn toward that way. Actually, until people began slapping me in the face with the verse from Leviticus, I never really thought about it. Somehow, I just knew that some things could be taken literally and some things needed to be thought out.
So what do we do with “call no one your father on earth”? That is not a problem for me regarding my paternal parent – I call him Daddy…or Pop…or Poppa. I have never called him “father”. Nor did he or my mom call their paternal parents “father”. “Daddy” is just a good Texas name. But one must say it properly for it to be Texan. “Da (a as in apple) de” with emphasis on the ‘Da ‘(not dah). The ‘de’ sort of clings to the ‘da’ and then just stops short.
But I digress. This isn’t really about parental labels – at least not earthly ones. It is about calling someone “Father”.
Calling a priest Father is not so much of a big deal here in Missouri. I cannot remember having heard anyone refer to himself as “Father So & So”. That might be because I am at the Cathedral and there is the “Dean” and then there are “Canons”. More than that, the clergy seem to go by their names– Renee, John, Mark, Suzanne, etc. In Fort Worth, it is almost an insult to call a priest by his name. It is seen as showing irreverence. Talk about exalted! Almost all of the priests I know in Fort Worth sign their names with “Father” or introduce themselves as such. And many times, it is not as Father Jim or Father Ed but Father Cantrell or Father Smith. A given name is too familiar...too close to the people as a person. I know many parishioners who call their priests “Father”. Just “Father”.
I have no idea what to do with the “teacher” and “instructor” part of this scripture…of course, the teachers I know fairly well humble themselves each time they walk into a classroom of over-indulged with the material while under-indulged with love youths…I think that the teachers who exalt themselves are few and far between. If one were to do so, I am sure that there are plenty of students who could quickly kick that pedestal out from under him or her. And most teachers know this.
The question is this – we call those who teach/instruct us teachers/instructors. We call our male priests Father. Is this the same thing? Jesus was a teacher/instructor. Can we use the same term of Rabbi/Messiah for ourselves? Can we use the same term Father when we say “Our Father” and then turn to a priest and say “our Father” the rector?
I would like to be a literalist but this type of scriptures confronts me and I have a difficult time of it. So, here is how I process. (and please…do not get all riled up because I seem critical of clergy – I know good ones are out there) Teachers are (for the most part) people who do humble themselves before loud, raucous youth receiving far too little pay, far too much criticism and little or no respect. They do not receive special parking, discounts or country club memberships…not even housing and travel allowances. Many clergy do. Teachers often spend money from their own pockets to provide supplies and learning tools for their students because the school district and parents can’t or won’t. I know that many clergy will spend money out of their own pocket when their Discretionary Funds are too low. But teachers do not have Discretionary Funds. Teachers and instructors are male and female. They are gay and straight. They are black and white and brown and all other sorts of colors. Plus teachers are caught up in bundles of red tape that the state and districts use to tie them in knots.
I repeat - I know that there are many male clergy out there who are humble and giving. I am privileged to know a few of them. But I cannot call them Father. I will not call them Father. It seems too dramatic…too exalted. They are only human after all and subject as we all are to the problem of self-elevation. While priests may come in all colors and may even be gay or straight, the appellation Father is used as a label for male priests only. If I am going to use this historically masculine label for God, I cannot use it for an earthly male. When applied to God, a term cannot represent an image of a mere human. We are, after all, made in the image of God, not the other way aroung.
That is how I justify using the term teacher for people but Father only for God. I take the masculine out of Father and then it is ok for use as a name for God. Although, personally, I like the Aramaic “Abba“ much better.
But then that creates a whole new problem…what are we literalists to do????