“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” It seems at first glance that we are guilty of letting a human tradition stand in the way of the words of our Lord. It seems that way at second glance too. We cannot say that Jesus was wrong, and we cannot say that Matthew did not faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ really taught.
There are some little tricks that people use to explain this, but they are not satisfactory. True, we call our male parent, “Father”, but Jesus is talking about titles that religious people take on. True, we do not use the exact word that Jesus condemns, since he did not speak English (the word “father” had not even been invented yet), but this seems too legalistic. Jesus is saying that we should not call anyone by the same name that we use for our male parent, no matter what language. True, Jesus says “call no one on earth your father”, and we do not call anyone “Our Father” except God, but why do we come so close to breaking the command?
However, and this is a big however, the use of “Father” as a title for religious leaders goes back as far as the Church herself. The desert monks of the early Church were called “Abba”. St. Paul himself says that “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We did not just discover the Gospel of Matthew yesterday. Even St. Jerome, 1600 years ago, struggled to interpret this verse in light of the tradition. It seems strange that this tradition grew up in a Church which always read the Gospels. The people who first started calling a priest or a monk “father” knew what Jesus had said.
One reason why tradition is so essential in the Church is that the members of the early Church understood better the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. They were closer to him culturally and historically. If they, reading this Gospel just as we do every year, did not think it was a contradiction to call religious leaders “Father” who are we to disagree? But if we do keep calling people on earth “Father”, we do so acknowledging our one Father in heaven. Let us “bow our knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.”