Thank God (literally) our Roman Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers aren’t biblical literalists.
Otherwise, they certainly would be in big trouble with Jesus and his teachings about what we call ourselves.
Not surprisingly, this comes up as Jesus spars with the scribes and Pharisees – an ongoing bout that continues right up to the last week of his earthy life.
Right there in the middle of Jerusalem, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd gathered around him that they are to do what the scribes and Pharisees say they should do, based on the laws of Moses: “…do whatever they teach you and follow it” (Matthew 23:3).
But, Jesus warns, don’t follow their example: “…do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
Jesus explains that his opponents want to put heavy burdens on others but aren’t willing to lift a finger themselves. And then when they finally do something, they want to make sure that everybody sees it.
These scribes and Pharisees want to be at the head table at banquets, seated in the best seats in the synagogues, greeted as someone important on the sidewalks and called “rabbi.”
Don’t do any of these things, Jesus tells his disciples and listeners. Even if you’re very learned, don’t ever think of yourself as a “rabbi” or even allow others to give you that title. That’s because you have only one “rabbi,” one “teacher.”
Don’t even give yourself the rank of “instructor” or allow someone else to use that term. Again, that’s because you have only one instructor, the Messiah.
So, Jesus says, if you have to call yourself something, or have someone else name you, always say that you are a “student.”
Up to this point, our Roman Catholic and Orthodox colleagues are in no trouble at all, or in no more trouble than any of the rest of us if we start using titles like the scribes and Pharisees.
But that changes when Jesus teaches: “Call no one on earth by the name or title of ‘Father,’ for you have only one who deserves such a title, your Father – the one in heaven.”
Of course, it isn’t just the Roman Catholics and Orthodox who are in trouble if we are biblical literalists; it would also apply to any male parent who uses that title for himself or allows his kids to call him that.
It turns out, however, that this isn’t really the point at all.
And when Jesus finally gets around to explaining himself, his condemnation applies to a much larger group of religious leaders. As a matter of fact, it applies to anyone who uses a title or a name for the purpose of lifting himself or herself above others.
I’m thinking that puts a whole lot of clergy in hot water with Jesus – those, for example, who want to be called “Reverend” or “Doctor” or even “Reverend Doctor.”
What’s the alternative?
Jesus is explicit about that when he states: “The greatest among you will be your servant” for “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
As for name-calling: “Greetings, fellow servants!”
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.