“A prophet,” wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “is a Divine Troubler, not a political troubler. He is always a disturber of worldly peace; he makes listeners feel uneasy.” This explanation of the prophet’s work — which is challenging for both himself and his listeners — fits perfectly with today’s readings, especially the first, from the prophet Malachi, and the last, from the Gospel of Matthew.
Malachi condemns the spiritual laxity and corruption, including among the priests, who offered impure sacrifices and failed to show proper reverence for God (Mal 1:6-14a). In relaying this strong indictment, he points to the true source and proper focus of priestly service: “Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us?”
The same dynamic is at the heart of today’s Gospel. The tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders had escalated to the point that direct confrontation could no longer be avoided. In fact, so strong are the words of Jesus, they form a prelude of sorts to a series of seven “woes,” or covenantal curses (Mt 23:13-36), which contrast directly with the series of blessings, the “beatitudes,” uttered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-11).
As with the priests of Malachi’s time, the central issues pinpointed by Jesus were corruption, arrogance, spiritual laxity, injustice, lack of reverence, and hypocrisy. He deliberately pointed out the truthfulness of the Pharisee’s teachings, which only further heightened the severity of their sins, for despite knowing and teaching the Law they did not practice what they preached: “All their works are performed to be seen.” Instead of humility and holiness, they pursued praise and prestige.
Their hypocrisy was very similar to that of the Judaizers confronted and questioned by the Apostle Paul: “You then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Rom 2:21).
All of this seems logical enough, even if the harshness of Jesus’ words is unsettling — as it was meant to be. What to make, however, of his command to call “no one on earth your father,” or “rabbi,” or “master”? This section, especially the injunction against the title, “father,” has been used by some Protestants to attack the Catholic priesthood.
There are a couple of points to keep in mind. First, if Jesus meant every use of “father” (as well as “teacher” and “rabbi”), it would necessarily also include references by children to their fathers, which makes no sense. Secondly, both Stephen and Paul made references to “fathers.” In the case of Stephen, it was to those who were stoning him to death (Acts 7:2), whereas Paul used it in a number of ways, even telling the Christians in Corinth, “For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15; see Acts 22:1; Eph 6:4; Phil 2:22).
Jesus, then, was warning against pride and the seeking of titles and, like Malachi, pointing toward the source of fatherhood, true teaching, and authentic authority. “It is one thing to be a father or a teacher by nature, another to be so by generosity,” wrote St. Jerome. “One is rightly called a teacher only for his association with the true Teacher.” Jesus, the divine troubler, is also our divine brother, drawing us to the Father so that we can practice what we preach (Mt 12:50).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.