Today’s Gospel presents us with a bit of a dilemma since Christ forbids his disciples from using the title father or teacher and yet we find ourselves using these titles all the time.
If we took this instruction of Jesus literally not only would we be forbidden to call priests by the title father, but also we would be forbidden from using the word teacher to describe those who guide us at school.
And if we were to take it even more precisely it seems as though we are even forbidden to call our male parent father. This can hardly be what Jesus means!
Actually, it would be pure nonsense; and indeed the Church has never taken this teaching at its face value. The hierarchy of the Church is littered with titles, even if, thankfully, in latter years there has been a noticeable pruning of them.
As always, we must look at the context and then look below the surface. The context is Jesus’ teaching about practicing what you preach. He points out that the Pharisees do not practice what they preach and he is instructing his disciples to be sure that they do not follow this example.
The Pharisees insist that the people call them Father or Rabbi or Master; but these are tiles to be earned and not claimed as a right. Anyone who insists on being called Rabbi, that is teacher, must fully live up to the title. They must have something to teach, something worth communicating to others, something people want to hear. All the more so if they claim to be preaching the message of God to the world.
These titles of Father, Teacher and Master strictly speaking only belong to God. Only he can be called Father since he is the unique creator, only he can be called Master since it is solely to him that we all owe allegiance. He is the only true Teacher since all revelation comes from God and is communicated to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
These are not new things to us in the Church; they are deeply rooted in our Christian faith. It is this basic attitude that Jesus is surely speaking about. He is concerned that we should have a right relationship with God and especially when it comes to those with leadership in the Christian community that they should not interpose themselves between God and the people.
When we on earth are given these titles it should not swell our heads, it should do the exact opposite. We acknowledge from whom these titles originate, and we ought to walk in his way with great trepidation and in all humility.
Hypocrisy is the great sin of the New Testament, one which Jesus is constantly accusing the Pharisees. The greatest tragedy of all would be for his own followers to fall into the same trap. This is surely why he stresses the point.
If we look at the first reading we see the author of the Book of Malachi admonishing the priests of the Temple to be true to their calling. The worship in the Temple is to be pure and according to the instructions handed down from God. Their teaching is to be true and they are not to lead the people astray otherwise they will quite definitely incur God’s anger.
Christ, of course, inaugurates the New Covenant and the sacrifices of the Temple are replaced by the Eucharist. But this does not invalidate the warning in Malachi.
We priests, as ministers of the New Covenant we must pay attention to what we are doing. We must celebrate the liturgy in accordance with the instructions handed down to us. We must do so in a way which is worthy of the dignity of this great sacrament of God’s love. We must do so with real reverence and with the participation of all.
Actually, the Church has been paying great attention to the celebration of the liturgy in the last few years. As we are all aware the translation of the mass into English was revised. Even if not all are entirely happy with the final result it certainly is an improvement on what was a more banal earlier translation. The revision has definitely made us all think about how we are celebrating the liturgy and the meaning of the words and actions we use.
Reflecting on how the liturgy is celebrated can only be a good thing. It is good for us to do so individually and in various groups such as servers, readers, singers and so on, but I think that we also have to consider how we as a whole congregation participate in the mass.
Coming to mass should never be a merely passive experience; we ought to participate as fully as we can. Now we can’t all come to the lectern to read at the one mass, and although we welcome as many servers as we can there isn’t enough room up here for everyone. So, what can we do?
Of course, we can participate by saying our prayers, by following the readings attentively and by joining in the hymns. One of the most important areas of participation is saying the responses and in particular the Great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer.
The word Amen means ‘so be it’ and by saying the Great Amen you the people give your consent and express your faith in all that has been said on your behalf by the priest.
Actually, you will notice that the priest normally doesn’t say the Great Amen himself. He stays silent holding up the paten and the chalice and it’s the job of the people to chime in loud and clear with what we call the Great Amen.
We come to mass and we expect to be fed. We are fed with the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Life as well as being fed with the Word of God. But you the people of the parish have to bring something to the party as well, you have to participate and be attentive to all that is going on.
We are a community gathered in the name of Christ; that alone guarantees his presence among us, but Christ is also present in Word and Sacrament and in many other ways. He is certainly among us now so let us worship him and pay him honour and do him service.
Let us rejoice in his presence and let our prayer be taken from the Alleluia verse for today: Speak to us Lord, for you have the message of Eternal Life!
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket