The Holy Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday after the Feast of Holy Cross is from the Gospel of St. Matthew 23: 1-12. Few verses in the aforementioned Gospel reading are often cited by many heterodox brethren to question our tradition of addressing the clergy- specially the priests and the high priests as fathers ( in Malayalam, the priest is addressed as ‘Achen’). The verses are: “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.” (Verses 8-10)When these verses are taken in isolation and understood literally, then it would actually mean that the children shouldn’t address their biological fathers as ‘fathers/daddy’! If we read the passage in entirety, we will understand that Jesus Christ, rather than proposing a blanket ban on the use of the word- ‘father/teacher’, instructs the disciples on humility while lamenting about the hypocrisy of the scribes and tgr Pharisees who twist God’s word for their own benefit.If Lord Jesus Christ intended to abolish the use of the word teacher, He would have never addressed Nicodemus as the ‘teacher of Israel’- “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (Gospel of St John 3:10; NKJV).If Jesus Christ ever intended to ban the word father, then He would have never used the word ‘father’ for Patriarch Abraham, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.“Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’” (St Luke 16:24; NKJV) Well the Lord can’t be contradicting Himself! Let us see how the first martyr, St Stephen addresses those who were judging him- “And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia,..” (Acts 7:2). Surely, St Stephen who was eager to be martyred for Christ, wouldn’t have dared to reject His teachings. St Stephen would have never addressed the elders in the assembly as ‘fathers’ and Abraham as ‘father’, if the aforementioned verses from St Matthew 23: 8-10 were to be understood literally.Throughout the epistles of St Paul we can see the care and concern of a spiritual father for his spiritual children. Surely, St Paul, would have abstained from the use of the word ‘father’ if Jesus’s words (as in St Matthew 23:8-10) were to be taken literally.a) 1 Corinthians 4:14-15: “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” (NKJV)b) 1 Thessalonians 2:11: “as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children,” (NKJV)c) St Paul calls himself a ‘teacher to the Gentiles’ as in 2 Timothy 1:11: “to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles”. He wouldn’t have called himself a teacher, if Christ’s teaching (as in St Matthew 23:8-10) were to be understood literally.d) St Paul wouldn’t have called Abraham as ‘our father’ and the ‘father of all those who believe’ if Christ’s words were to be comprehended in literal sense. Romans 4: 11-12: “..that he might be the father of all those who believe, …, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.” St Paul in numerous instances address the recipients of his letter as ‘his children’ and so does he address Timothy as ‘ a true son in faith’ (1 Timothy 1:2; NKJV). Numerous times does St John addresses the readers as ‘My children/my little children’ in his epistles. The Holy Scripture is absolutely clear on the pastoral care undertaken by the spiritual fathers, who are ‘called’ to serve the Church as clergy. Led by the bishops, our spiritual fathers trace the origin of their stewardship to Apostles themselves. Just as a father nourishes, corrects, forgives and sustains his children so are our spiritual fathers called to meet the spiritual needs of those who are entrusted to their care- by providing spiritual nourishment through the Holy Sacraments, by preaching and teaching the Apostolic faith, by correcting those who have gone astray with compassion. The Church has always acknowledged this special gift by addressing such as ‘father’ and we faithfully continue to do so even today.It would be worth to read the difference between our biological parents and priests, beautifully explained by St John Chrysostom. “…God has bestowed a power on priests greater than that of our natural parents. The two indeed differ as much as the present and the future life. For our natural parents generate us unto this life only, but the others unto that which is to come. The former (our parents) are not able to ward off from their children the sting of death, nor prevent the attack of disease; yet the latter (the priests) often saved the sick and perishing soul–sometimes by imposing a lighter penance, sometimes by preventing the fall, not only by instruction and admonition, but also by the assistance wrought through prayers. For not only at the time of regeneration (Holy Baptism), but afterwards also, they have authority to forgive sins. ..”- St John Chrysostom (On the Priesthood, Book 3:6)It is our duty to pray for the spiritual fathers who have guided us/ are guiding us in the True and undefiled faith.In an era which focuses highly on material life, there are unfortunate instances of the shepherds straying. The spiritual father ought to always remind himself of our Lord Jesus Christ to sanctify himself for the sake of the flock he is entrusted to take care of.”And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.” (St. John 17:19; NKJV) May the Church be blessed with true spiritual teachers and fathers who like St Paul would teach ‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ’!
Image: Rev Fr. K. Philipose (later His Grace Dr. Philipose Mar Theophilus Metropolitan of blessed memory) referenced from the November 1952 edition of the Malankara Sabha magazine.