Gospel reflection for Nov. 5, 2023, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus often criticizes the religious leaders of his day of being hypocrites. Then, as now, there was a tendency for religious leaders to excuse themselves from the demands that they place on the faithful. This was a society where one’s caste carried certain meaning, and where privilege governed social interactions. Neither Jesus nor any one of the twelve were part of the priestly class or even among the Pharisees, so they were always on the outside and never part of the inner circle. Even more so as Galileans, they were seen as lower class, almost what we would at certain times in history call hicks.
Jesus seems to revel in the role of the outsider, but he is concerned that as his disciples gained some notoriety, that they would transform their outsider status into a form of elitism. As the closest associates of Jesus, they would carry some significance among the others, especially after Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus is thus concerned that his outsider movement might become the new class of elites.
Jesus then warns his disciples that they ought not to act in the same way, and most certainly that they should hold in low regard those who would place themselves above others.
A careful read through the Acts of the Apostles, and certainly in the letters of St. Paul, highlights the struggle even among the apostles themselves as to the privileges and deferential treatment from which they benefited.
St. Paul rails against, what he calls, the Super Apostles and points out that he has made his own way, working a side job as a leatherworker (tentmaker?) so as not to be a burden on the communities to which he proclaimed the Gospel. He points out that some of the apostles and other evangelizers brought their families with them, who also needed food and shelter.
It is perhaps telling that very quickly titles and honors crept into the community. As soon as Jesus ascended, the remaining eleven go about selecting a successor to Judas Iscariot so that their number might again be twelve. They set clear criteria for the selection, and thereby pointed out that the apostles were to be set apart from the others. As jealousy crept into the community over the care of widows, the apostles chose to call seven men as deacons to wait on them and tend to their needs, so that the apostles did not spend their time taking care of them.
St. Paul quickly makes distinctions as he appointed elders and supervisors for the community. The beginnings of the rank of holy orders -- deacon, priest, and bishop -- all formed during the nascent Church.
How does all of this square with the teaching of Jesus here? Did the Church go astray from the beginning as some will claim? Is the practice of calling priests “Father” a rejection of this Gospel passage?
The short answer to both questions is “no.” While Jesus offers warning against the proliferation of titles, he does so to strengthen the call to see leadership as service, as a true ministry, and not as an exercise of personal power and privilege. This does not mean that there is not and has not been abuse of clerical ranks, something that the recent popes have been calling out and attempting to correct.
We call priests “Father” not so much because of a sense of spiritual fatherhood, although that is a part of it, but to acknowledge that the priest is in communion with the Fathers of the Church -- this a title that points not to the priest himself but rather to the entire tradition of the Church.
It is true that we have only one Father -- God himself -- but that all fatherhood flows from him and returns to him.
In humble faith we recognize that as we call anyone our father -- biological, emotional, or spiritual -- that we do so knowing that he is a gift to us from our heavenly Father, but we also know that this earthly father is broken by sin. The same is true of motherhood -- it is a gift from God and returns to God. Jesus reminds us of our total reliance on God as Father, and that we all stand as humble servants to and in his kingdom.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.