The series of three “do nots” in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew is pretty well known. The middle one, “Call no man on earth father,” is likely the most familiar. That one catches our ear the most and is sometimes leveled against Catholics as evidence that we violate scripture. The first and third might be less familiar, “Do not be called rabbi,” and “Do not be called master.” Shall we completely reinvent our language because of these three passages? I will venture to say no, but I think Christ does challenge us to not let these words sideline God.
Webster can leave teacher, father, and master in his dictionaries because Christ is not asking us to be legalistic about this. To know this we just need to look at the context of the passage. Christ is setting how his disciple’s should live in contrast to how the Pharisees do things. This is important because the Pharisees (well-intentioned as some of them were) were intensely rigorous about fulfilling the externals of the law. They were legalistic. People have actually come to call this kind of legalism, pharisaical. Now, it would be a discredit to Christ’s skill as a rabbi to believe that his train of thought went like this: “Do not be like the Pharisees, except in regard to these three words, be really pharisaical about these.” Rather, it makes more sense, and the text provides evidence for this, that Christ is asking them to change the way they let these words impact their walk, not refrain from ever saying them. The words aren’t bad, but if seen incorrectly, they all provide room for sidelining the Lord. This is where I believe Christ is challenging us.
Christ is first reminding us that we are a work in progress. We cannot be the rabbi because we have encountered the one from whom we will always learn more. We can certainly teach and help others learn, but the passage from disciple to rabbi has ceased with the coming of the eternal Word, and we are called to be his disciples.
Now that call might be problematic for our status quo, so Jesus naturally undermines our ability to make excuses. So before the words, “Sorry, Jesus, my dad won’t let me follow you,” can leave our lips he reminds us that God is not a distant arbiter of rules, or an impersonal force, but is our one and true loving Father. Jesus doesn’t stop there.
He closes with these words, “you have but one master, the Christ.” He is reminding us that He has the right to call us, to interrupt our status quo because work, sin, this or that habit, none of those are our master. We are not even masters of our own lives as he establishes in the Sermon on the Mount.
Yes, we can use words like rabbi, teacher, master, doctor, father, etc. For Jesus’s message is not about what words we can and can’t say but what they do to our relationship with Him. He never wants us to exclude or forget that the Christ is our master. He has the right to call us and our Father wants us to respond. God desires us to discover our walk with him as disciples of the Word.