Call No Man Father! (A reflection on Matthew 23:8-11)

You must not be called ‘Teacher,’ because you are all equal and have only one Teacher. And you must not call anyone here on earth ‘Father,’ because you have only the one Father in heaven. Nor should you be called ‘Leader,’ because your one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant.
“Call no man ‘Father’” says Jesus.

That’s part of our reading today from Matthew 23. Jesus says, “call no man ‘Father’”. What’s that doing here? And I don’t just mean what’s it doing here as this week’s reading. I mean, what’s it doing in the Bible?

Since the (not so recent) publication of “The Da Vinci Code” there’s been something of a revival of the theory that, over the centuries, the church has deliberately changed the Bible to suit its own aims – deleted a bit here, added a bit there, etc. I would contend, if that were the case, why on earth didn’t the church get rid of this bit? It’s a downright embarrassment!

After all, here it is, in black and white, and yet, what do nine out of ten kids say to me when they see me in the Youth Centre (or in the street for that matter) … “Hey Father!” And of course I respond by saying, “A curse be upon you, son! Hast thou not read in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew that our Lord Jesus Himself explicitly forbade us from calling any man ‘Father’ (including me … and including your own father [if you have one])?” No, I don’t respond that way, do I? They say to me, “Hey Father” and I reply, “Hey brother”.

Mind you, there was one institution that I was once a part of where people did respond in pretty much that way – that international bastion of Anglican Puritanism, Moore College!

While I was there this verse was indeed regularly drawn upon by students and addressed quite aggressively to some of their more Catholicly-inclined fellows. Did not Jesus say, “Call no man Father”? No one, we claimed, would ever call us by that forbidden title. We knew what we wanted to be called … “teacher”!

I kid you not. Indeed I remember being lectured there by the (once) Principal who said that ‘Teacher’ was the title people most regularly used when they addressed Jesus, and so that should be the title we aspire to too!

And I don’t remember anyone responding to that suggestion by saying, “Hang on. Just before Jesus said, “Call no man ‘Father’”, didn’t He also say, “Call no man ‘Teacher’”? For some reason that link was never made.

In truth though, I don’t believe that the real issue at stake here is one of words at all! I don’t believe that Jesus was really ever overly-concerned with making sure that everybody got their terminology right and I don’t believe (and I address this to my own son in particular) that this verse gives anyone an excuse for calling their dad by his first name!

At any rate, the real issue at stake here is something that is far more significant than any bickering over the minutiae of appropriate terminology. The real issue here is the abuse of religious power – something that I suspect we are all sadly familiar with.

And I don’t just mean that very obvious abuse of religious power, where clergy have used their position to sexually abuse people who are supposed to be in their care, but that broad abuse of title and position where religious leaders use their ecclesiastical credentials to leverage themselves into positions of comfort and control.

These religious leaders, Jesus says, “do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi” (Matthew 23:5-7) but this, says Jesus, is not what spiritual leadership is supposed to be about!

I thought it might be helpful at this stage to make some sort of distinction between power and authority, or at least between different sorts of authority – between what we might term ‘institutional authority’ and ‘charismatic authority’.

‘Institutional authority’ in its most extreme form, is that which Mao Tse Tung referred to as the “power that grows out of the barrel of a gun”. It is power that has government backing, power that has credentials behind it. It’s the power you wield when you’re the only job applicant with a string of letters after your name, representing all the University degrees you’ve accumulated. It’s the power you gain at Ordination – to take over a church and tell everybody exactly what they’re supposed to do (except the Wardens of course [in the Anglican system] who you have to be very nice to, as they can withhold your pay if they don‘t like you. God knows how that clause crept into our constitution).

At any rate, institutional authority is this exercise of power that comes from the top-down – where the guy with the position and the credentials wields executive power. ‘Charismatic authority‘, on the other hand, is that which comes from the bottom-up! It’s the authority people give to you, or that they recognise in you, such that they choose to respect your leadership.

When the people said of Jesus, that “He spoke as one who had authority, and not like their Scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 7:24), it’s this second form of authority that we are dealing with, isn’t it. He didn’t speak with authority because he had credentials and the backing of the religious establishment behind him. Rather, in contrast to those who did have all those things, Jesus spoke as one who had God-given authority, and so His power came from God and from the people, and not from the Government.

Charismatic power – this is the sort of power that Jesus had, and I believe it’s the only sort of power he ever expected his followers to wield – again, not an authority resting on the backing of the state at any point, but rather an authority that people would recognise – a power that would be given, from the bottom up. Charismatic authority is the only sort of authority a spiritual leader can really have, and in the end it’s the only real, lasting form of authority anyway. As has been pointed out, the power that grows ‘from the barrel of a gun’ really only exists for as long as you are holding the gun. When you put the gun down you discover whether you really had any authority or not.

Authority in the Christian community comes from the bottom up and is developed through the leaders‘ history of service. As Jesus said in Matthew Chapter 20: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it shall be among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of the others – like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served but to serve” (verses 25 to 28) or as he puts it here in Chapter 23: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (verses 11 to 12)

Now there is a great deal more that could be said on this subject, but I prefer to stick to my usual pattern of making just the one point per sermon, and my point this morning is simply that Jesus expected his Church to exercise charismatic and not institutionalised power, and yet, of course, it’s been the sad history of the Church that we’ve always sought institutional recognition and backing, and often at the expense of the people-based authority we might otherwise have exercised.

Indeed, one of my Latin American heroes, Leonardo Boff, wrote a book entitled, “Charism and Power” (a few years back now) where he looked at the entirety of the history of the church in terms of a series of specific choices where the church had to choose between maintaining their institutional authority or maintaining their integrity, and sadly, according to Boff, we have almost always chosen to maintain our institutionalised power rather than our integrity.

And I accept the judgement of my learned colleague, Father Elias, that there may be many inaccuracies in the book, but I think we all know that there is a great deal of truth in this analysis too, and that the church has indeed regularly sold out on its integrity for the sake of maintaining institutionalised power, and nothing could be more antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.

The great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, spoke of a time when he was in the Cathedral in Copenhagen, watching his grace the great Archbishop of Copenhagen come forward in all his robes, with his mitre and his attendants, wielding his mighty staff, at the base of a great procession. And he read from the first chapter of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – “God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (verse 27). And Kierkegaard said he looked around the Cathedral, and nobody else was laughing Nobody else got the joke!

There is something rather ironic about the way we adorn our spiritual leaders with all the trappings of worldly glory, and maybe there’s even something ironic about the kids at the Youth Centre calling me ‘Father’? But the crux of the matter is not about clothes and it’s not about titles. It’s about authority that comes through service: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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