Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10, Ps 131:1, 2, 3, 1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13, Mt 23:1-12
One of the themes that is present in all of today’s readings is that of fatherhood and motherhood, about what it means to really be a parent. In the first reading God sternly warns priests that they will receive a curse instead of a blessing, because they don’t keep the ways of the Lord and have led many astray by their teachings. They haven’t been good “fathers,” as it were, and the people have suffered as a result. After all, all the people have “one father,” God Himself, and are therefore equal in dignity. The Psalm speaks of being humble and finding peace in God, using the beautiful imagery of a mother and child: “I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me.” The second reading, from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, shows us what a good father does. Paul recounts his sacrifices as he sought to spread the Gospel, comparing his labors to the work of a mother: “We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.”
In the Gospel, Jesus tells the crowds not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees, who say one thing, but do another. He then gives a series of injunctions to the crowds, and one sticks out: “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.”
It’s important that we understand the context in which Jesus is speaking, and then we can apply it to our lives, considering what it means to be a father or a mother. What it is that Jesus is pointing out by saying this?
As always, the context is important: Jesus says to call no man on earth “Father” as He rebukes the scribes and Pharisees. As He tells the crowds what they should do, He gives them a list of titles that they aren’t supposed to use: He tells them to call no man Rabbi or teacher, to call no man father, and to call no man master. The title “Father” was often given to rabbis as a title of honor, but the problem was, as Jesus points out, that the people often looked to them rather than to God the Father. The scribes and the Pharisees were fathers in such a way that they hid God the Father, and made Him difficult to find. So, Jesus isn’t saying not to use the word, or that we can’t call priests or our earthly fathers by that name; in fact, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul calls himself “the father” of those whom he brought to knowledge of the God (4:15). Rather, what Christ is doing is calling us to consider what it really means to be a father.
It might surprise us, but this idea of God’s fatherhood is the most recurrent theme of the Gospels. It forms the heart of what Jesus preaches about, and the word “father” appears over two hundred times in the Gospel. The early Christian writer Tertullian explains the novelty of this when he writes: “The expression ‘God the Father’ had never been revealed to anyone. When Moses himself asked God who he was, he heard another name. The Father’s name has been revealed to us in the Son, for the name ‘Son’ implies the new name ‘Father.’” We can invoke God as “Father” because He is revealed to us by His Son become man and because his Spirit makes him known to us.
We don’t have to look very far to see that the institution of the family is going through some difficult moments: over half of marriages end in divorce, many couples simply don’t get married, and the list goes on. As the family suffers more and more, it affects the way we understand what it means to be a father or a mother, and this, in turn, affects the way we see God the Father. However, if we want to reverse this trend, then we need to go in the opposite direction: we need to learn from God what it means to be a father. Here, we can take father in the broad sense, not only to mean biological father, but also mothers, and not just on the natural level, but also on the supernatural level. So, this idea of being a parent applies to biological fathers and mothers, adoptive parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, sisters, and priests. Whenever we talk about giving life to someone, be that in the physical sense or in the sense of bringing someone to the life of grace, we are speaking of being a parent and, as Saint Paul wrote to the Ephesians (3:15): “All fatherhood comes from God the Father.” We learn to be good mothers and fathers from God the Father, and, because He is the perfect model, no matter what our own experiences have been, we can learn to be good parents from the school of God the Father.
We can point out seven different characteristics of God the Father that serve as a model for parents: immutability, omnipresence, omniscience and wisdom, holiness, mercy, and justice.
First, God is immutable; in the same way, there must be an immutability (or stability, if you prefer) in the principles and decisions of every earthly parent; stability is the foundation of all authority. It’s true that sometimes things need to be adjusted or changed, but a changing parent, one who is insecure, fickle, inconstant, unpredictable, indecisive, etc., has no authority, and they pass on to their children a spirit of unpredictability and whim, and a great insecurity and disorientation in life. Parents must be stable, and that means having stable principles.
Second, God is omnipresent; He is everywhere. Obviously, a human parent cannot be everywhere, but they should try to be present to their children when it’s possible. This means not only affectively, carrying them in their heart and in their mind, but also physically. In a valuable document from the Church, we read: “Parents must find time to be with their children and take time to talk with them. As a gift and a commitment, children are their most important task, although seemingly not always a very profitable one. Children are more important than work, entertainment and social position.”
God is omniscient and wise; no creature can be that. However, a parent should know, in the measure that it’s possible, everything that concerns their children. This doesn’t mean theories about children; it means actually knowing their children: their identity, their problems, their goals, their ideals. This can only be accomplished by listening to them and observing them. If parents don’t take the time to know their children, who will?
God is holy; good parents must aspire to holiness. Holiness is the universal vocation of all men. To be perfect, a person must be united to God by grace. To be good (and very good) parents, parents must be united to God. We will be good parents in the measure that we are good sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father.
Lastly, God is, at one and the same time and without any contradiction, merciful and just. Earthly parents should seek to know how to be just but also forgiving, like Him: to have an iron hand in a velvet glove, firmness and gentleness at the same time. We can ask ourselves how well we imitate God the Father in our parenting. Are we stable, omnipresent, wise, and holy? How often do we study at the school of God the Father? Do we really trust in Him to make good our defects and deficiencies? Through the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word, let us ask for the grace to really be true parents to those whom God calls us to love and give life to, so that we might not only be mothers and fathers in word, but rather in deed.