Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Mal 14-2:2; 1 Thess 2:7-13; Mt 23:1-12

When I was giving lots of talks to groups, both Catholic and ecumenical, one of the questions I was most frequently asked was: "Why are priests called ‘father’ when there is a clear prohibition against it in Jesus’ teaching?" The short answer is that it just became a custom at a later period of history when a local leader was often called a father. The longer answer is to explain why this passage is in the gospel in the first place. To explain that will take us far deeper into history.

We must understand the early history of both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism to get at that. Throughout the first century Jews were disturbed about the presence of the Romans in control of their country. The most radical group of Jews were the Zealots. They wanted to throw the Romans out altogether. By about mid-century they had gained sway over the majority of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. They wanted all the various Jewish groups to be on their side. But the Christians, who at that time were still considered a variety of Judaism, refused to revolt and fight against the Romans because the Christians were basically pacifists. As a result around the year 66 the Zealots expelled the Christians from Jerusalem, and they fled to the city of Pella. That began a feeling of deep animosity between the Christians and the Jews.

As things eventually turned out, the Zealots did rise up against the Romans, but they didn’t have a chance. The Roman army overwhelmed them. In the year 70AD the Romans captured the city of Jerusalem and executed all the leading Zealots. They destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and killed most of the priests. Out of the ruins of this tragedy one Pharisee, Yohanan ben Zachaii, asked the Roman generals if he could go to the small town of Yavneh, west of Jerusalem and found an academy there; he promised it would be entirely peaceful. The Romans gave him permission. And so began the reconstruction of Judaism under the leaders, who called themselves Rabbis or teachers. They worked hard to rebuild a Jewish identity and often called themselves children of their father, Abraham. This grew into what is traditionally called Rabbinical Judaism.

But the old hostility still lingered between the Jews and the Christians. They didn’t trust each other. That distrust gets written into Christian writings, mainly the later gospels of Matthew and John, and also into Jewish documents. The gospel writers put that distrust into their stories about Jesus. What they were trying to do is to make Jesus comment on a historical situation that actually occurred fifty years after the time Jesus lived. We need to know that about the gospels.

So when Jesus says, "do not be called rabbi," this is actually referring to the Christian view of the rabbis fifty years after Jesus lived. And when he says, "Call no one your father," it is actually a criticism of the rabbis who called Abraham their father. Here’s the key: this is meant to refer to that specific historical situation in the first century and not for all time.

Now the problem with all this process of critique is that it makes the New Testament very difficult for ordinary believers to understand and interpret. And there’s no two ways about it—this is one of the most serious pastoral issues of our day. And there’s no quick and easy way to fix it. But at least you can know why there is a ban on calling any human being your father in the words of Jesus.

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