“…whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Chief among the principles hammered home by the leaders of the Protestant Revolt five hundred years ago is a principle that some still assert today. It’s the principle that no one should come between me and God. Put more formally, it’s the principle that no member of the Church ought to act as a mediator between God and man: not Mary, not the saints, and certainly not priests.
This principle of rejecting mediators within the life of the Church might seem warranted by today’s Gospel passage. Jesus seems to caution against three different roles of mediator: “do not be called ‘Rabbi’.… Call no one on earth your father…. Do not be called ‘Master’”. It’s hard to imagine being faithful to what the Word of God states here without following the principle of rejecting mediators.
Yet the Apostle Paul claims to be faithful to the Word of God. In his second letter to Timothy, St. Paul insists: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” [2 Tim 3:16].
Since this is true of “all scripture”, it’s true of what St. Paul says in another of his letters. In writing to the Corinthian people, he explains how they have one father. He squarely states, “You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but not more than one father […] it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus” [1 Cor 4:15]. It’s hard to imagine—if you were to interpret Holy Scripture in a literalistic sense—any words that more directly contradict Jesus’ command to “call no one on earth your father” than what St. Paul says of himself: “You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but not more than one father […] it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus”.
Trying to make sense of this seeming contradiction is made even more difficult by St. Paul’s next words: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” [1 Cor 4:16]. Why doesn’t St. Paul just say instead, “Be imitators of Christ”? Why is Paul making himself out to be a middle-man, which is to say, a mediator between the Corinthian people and God?
Here we must be mindful of a key Catholic principle of reading and reflecting upon the Bible. Since “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable”, whenever one passage of Scripture seems to contradict another, the problem lies in the human interpretation of one or both passages. So in the seeming contradiction between Jesus’ words about mediators and St. Paul pointing to himself as a mediator, we have an example from the Apostle to the Gentiles [see Romans 11:13] of how to interpret the Word of God faithfully and fruitfully.
Saint Paul—who is not only a faithful spiritual father, but also a faithful spiritual teacher (that is, “rabbi”)—leads us deeper into the mystery of living the Christian Faith. St. Paul’s words don’t contradict Jesus’ command concerning fathers, teachers, and masters. St. Paul’s words deepen the revelation of Jesus.
Christian fathers, whether in the home or in the sanctuary, whether through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony or through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, are called to say—by their example if not also by their words—what St. Paul proclaims to the Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Christian fathers are called to draw their children each day and each week into the life of Christ.
Christian fathers, in other words, recognize that what St. Paul said of human families is true also of human fathers: “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” [Ephesians 3:14-15]. Every human father derives his power and significance as father from God the Father. Every human father is meant to lead his children to God the Father. What Jesus warns us against in today’s Gospel passage is any human father—or teacher, or master—who acts on his own authority, and who leads his children away from God.
Human fatherhood, and teaching, and mastery of every sort, are rooted authentically in the life of God. Children are not made for their human fathers. Human fathers, rather, are made to reveal to their children and lead their children to the everlasting love who is God the Father.