Catholics might be perplexed by today’s Gospel. Jesus exhorts the crowds and his disciples to call no one Rabbi, Father or Master. This teaching has been known to the Church from its very beginning and yet we continue to use these titles for clergy and others. Has the Church been wrong all these years? What did Jesus mean when he said this?
The titles need to be placed into context of the world and time in which Jesus lived. The word Jesus usually applies to describe the Pharisees is “hypocrites” but the word in the original Greek of the Gospel is the word for “Actors”. They are presented as phonies and façades, intent on receiving accolade and honor from their neighbors but not, themselves, doing anything better than anyone else. Everything is for show. The words “Rabbi”, “Father” and “Master” were all part of the charade. In the time of Jesus, the word “rabbi” was given as an honorific title, meaning “lord”, not a title for Jewish clergy. The title “father” was one given to the elders of the community, those who were the decision makers and law givers. The title “master” was given to the head of the household, usually one with extended family and perhaps servants and slaves. These titles all fall in line with the accusation of the Pharisees being ‘actors’, pretending to care about the Law when they were actually seeking the place of honor and entitlement in their community. Jesus is exhorting his followers not to seek status or places of honor. Jesus says that the least shall be the greatest in the Kingdom.
The use of these titles in the time of Jesus has nothing to do with the titles today. Catholics give their priests the title “Father” not as an honorific but as a title of affection and intimacy. It does not imply entitlement but service to the community. Our modern use of the word “rabbi” is the same, reflecting a spirit of service.
This week, we celebrate the feast of All Saints. We honor the men and women who have attained this title, having lived lives of heroic virtue. We hope to gain the title ourselves. But like the titles in today’s Gospel, saints do not aspire to the title for positions of status or entitlement. They gain the title after having lived authentic lives of service to those around them. Saints are not actors but real men and women who have attained the highest honor through humility and service. The first promise of the Sacred Heart is that we will have the grace necessary for our state in life. May we follow the saints in allowing that grace to work in us.