SERMON – PENTECOST XX
October 30, 2011
+In the Name…
Jesus said, “…call no man your father on earth, for you have one father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (St. Matthew 23: 9-11).
My dear and wise priest friend from St. Louis, Father John Jay Hughes, in his sermon for today (which he sends out to many in advance), stated that Pope Gregory the Great, who lived from the year 509 to 604 (which was a very long life in the seventh century!), said that as Pope, he understood himself as “the servant of the servants of God.”
Gregory the Great was surely thinking of our Lord’s statement and teaching, “The Son of Man comes not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (St. Mathew 20:28).
Now, of course, Jesus (for us and for all men) IS to be served, but His statement that He came not be served, but to serve, was a statement and a teaching for how we are to regard Him and ourselves in the economy of God. We are to understand ourselves as servants of Christ because He exampled and modeled the role of servanthood for us.
We all remember (and need to have this impress itself upon us) that on Maundy Thursday, the night before He gave His life on the Cross for us, an act of higher obedience, Jesus assumed the role of a servant when, at the Last Supper, He girded Himself with a towel, and went one by one to His Apostles and washed their feet – an incredibly humble act normally done by the servant or slave of a household for the Master and his guests.
You will remember that He said unto them after so doing, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him” (St. John 13:14-16).
Jesus said, “…a servant is not greater than his master.” Jesus is the Master, and we are His servants; so we are to serve Him, not expecting that He serve us – even though He said that He had come to serve. “A servant is not greater than his master.” In this, Jesus was once again making it abundantly clear that He was the obedient servant of His Master – God the Father.
Jesus serves us because His mission is a mission of love, mercy, and redemption, dictated by the Father Who sent Him. But because He serves us, we are to serve Him and serve others for His Name’s sake.
Jesus ends the portion of the Gospel for this Sunday with His statement, “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
A prayer I offer daily, is that of St. Ignatius Loyola:
“Teach us, good Lord, to serve Thee as Thou deservest; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward – Save that of knowing that we do Thy will.”
Whatever one’s position or role in the Body of Christ, whatever honor and expectation has been entrusted to any one of us, humility is to define us in our coming and going, in all that we do, because Jesus was humble, and because the exaltation of oneself above others is sure to bring (as Jesus taught) the reality of being humbled, possibly an embarrassing degree of humiliation before others.
When I was in London this past week, I picked up a copy of the weekly Church newspaper, “The Catholic Herald,” at Westminster Cathedral. In it, was a reflection on today’s Lectionary readings by Bishop David McGough of Birmingham, in which the Bishop wrote: “Integrity of heart and mind can never be taken for granted. It is preserved by a humility that never tires of submitting its own conduct to the scrutiny of God’s will. The noblest intentions, without constant reference to the God who was their beginning, inevitably degenerate into a corrupt self-interest.”
But before Jesus spoke about the necessity of humility, He speaks about the whole issue of not calling anyone on earth “father” or “master,” because, “…you have one Father, who is in heaven,”…and because, “…you have one master, the Christ.”
So what about calling a priest “Father;” or referring to the Pope as the “Holy Father”? Is this a violation of our Lord’s teaching?
Before I directly address that question, let me ask you the question (and I don’t expect a verbal answer), what do you think about the teaching of our Lord in the Gospels when He states (and this is not a direct quote) that if your eye or hand causes you to sin, you should pluck out your eye or cut off your hand?
Or when He teaches that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell a mountain to move itself from one place to another?
These statements and teachings of our Lord are without question true, and of the Truth that He brought and that of Who He is. But we are not to be literalists because that would be the taking of a position that Jesus Himself did not literally take or expect us to take. He spoke the Truth because He was and is the Incarnate Truth of the Father – a truth that is the same yesterday, today, and forever; but He spoke the Truth in ways that He chose to make His point and to transmit the Truth. He, at times, spoke figuratively, allegorically, and metaphorically to reveal God’s will and purpose for man.
When He said that you and I are not to call any man on earth “father” or “master,” He made a clear theological point that we are never to replace the Person of God the Father or the Person of God the Son (Who was the Word become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth) with a human being; and that no person on earth should dare claim that he be held in any form of honor or obedience above God.
But this does not preclude calling a man “Father” as we do with a priest, or with the term the “Holy Father,” as we do with the Pope. Priests, Bishops, and Popes are called to represent and speak for Jesus, Who showed forth the will and love of God the Father. Jesus said to the Apostle Phillip, “When you see me, you see the Father.” Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”
A priest is ordained to do many things, but undergirding these many things is the ontological character of his ordination. He is a man called by God, approved by the Church, and graced with the grace of ordination to (at a minimum) absolve, bless, and consecrate in the Name of Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. The priest both represents and symbolizes God the Father and God the Son in persona Christi (especially in the Eucharist as Altar Christus) as the Holy Spirit guides and moves his ministry for the spiritual benefit of the people under his care. He is their shepherd for the Good Shepherd; and he is the spiritual father of a particular family. He also is a spiritual father for the children of God who seek his spiritual counsel.
We get a glimpse of this human spiritual fatherhood in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where after some words of chastisement to the Christians in Corinth, he states: “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (4:14-16). In his letter to Philemon, writing about a runaway slave who Paul has convinced to return to his master, he says: “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment” (vs. 10).
You see how this type of spiritual fatherhood is biblical; so its place in the life of the Church is to be welcomed and upheld for the common good and for the good ordering of the Church. Just a word about the word “Master,” and calling one that. We use the word “Mister” quite naturally and respectfully in our human parlance. “Mister” is a derivation of the English word “Master.”
When a young man is called “Mister” (followed by his surname) by a teacher, the young man knows that he is being given the respect that he should have for himself, and that he is being called to a certain degree of accountability for what is expected of him.
I don’t mean to dwell on this, but it is important for us to understand that Jesus then and now calls us to glorify God; and in the context of what is before us this morning, that one should never put himself and herself forward in a way that claims more than is due; that something is owed and rightfully demanded; or claim an autonomy that lacks dependency upon God from Whom one’s place or position has been given. Yes, a priest is ordained to be a spiritual father, but his spiritual fathering is rooted and dependent upon his relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, we can and should call those, to whom it applies, “Father,” “Mister,” “Rabbi” – praying always that all strive to be servants of the servants of God. But above all, is the honor and praise we thankfully and heartily render to God, praying that when we have finished our course in faith and fear, we hear the voice that says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
+In the Name…