Against All Forms of Idolatry

(Homily for Thirty-First Ordinary Sunday - Year A)

Bottom line: Jesus uses dramatic language to warn against all forms of idolatry - including making a person into an idol. And he reminds teachers, doctors, fathers that our purpose is to lead others to the one Teacher, the one Doctor, the one Father.

Priests take a beating in today's readings. First, the prophet Malachi has strong words regarding our failures to give proper instruction. Then in the Gospel, Jesus says to call no man "father." Other Christians sometimes ask why we use that title for priests when Jesus seems to rule it out. Before answering that question, I would like address the basic message of today's Gospel:

In a dramatic Jesus teaches that our value comes from God alone. He is our goal, the purpose of our existence. He says to call no man "Rabbi" or "Teacher" or "Father." We have only one Master, one Teacher, one Father - God himself. Jesus is speaking against idolatry, which is the basic, the form of all other sins. Idolatry means to place the creature above the Creator. Idolatry can involve objects such as cars, homes and bank accounts. And, as Jesus indicates, we can make idols out of human beings: rabbis, teachers, fathers (not to mention sports stars, actresses, politicians & scientists).

To explain idolatry, let me use an illustration. I did not invent it. It comes from St. Augustine. He uses the example of a girl whose fiancé gives her an engagement ring. The ring is gorgeous and the boy is happy that his girl likes it so much. She of course is dying to show it to her friends. Well, she starts to love the ring so much that it becomes more important to her than the one who gave it! When the boy discovers that his girl loves the ring more than him, he is not so happy. And if he finds out she is using the ring to make her girl friends envious and show her superiority over them, he might be more than unhappy. He might become furious. "I gave you the ring as a sign of our love - not to look down on others."

St. Augustine says that something similar applies to our relationship with God. He has given us gifts, tokens of his love. For sure, He wants us to love his gifts and to be grateful for them. He does not give the gifts, however, for their own sake - or to make us think we are better than others. Like an engagement ring, he wants the gifts to signify a relationship - and to lead us to him. Anything less involves some degree of idolatry.

Idolatry can include not just things, but - as Jesus makes clear - it can involve persons. If I make some person more important than God, I am treating him as an idol. To use Jesus' example, someone might be a very good teacher. You feel like you could listen to him all day. But the question is: Does the teacher lead you to himself or beyond? A good teacher does not make a student dependent. Rather, he teaches the student habits of study, methods of inquiry and a sense of wonder. Those things can lead a student to a love of learning. And that love of learning can eventually bring a person to God.

You could say something similar about a doctor. Doctor is the Latin word for "teacher." So, call no man 'doctor.' For sure a human doctor is able to diagnose illnesses and to offer remedies. That is good, but even better if a doctor can lead a patient to the source of well-being and health - which is ultimately God himself. If we start thinking that medicine itself can save us - it has become an idol. And idols always lead to some degree of enslavement. Jesus tells us that, when all is said and done, there is only one Doctor, one Teacher, one Father.

So, if Jesus warns us not to make any thing or person into an idol, what can we say about titles of respect? Should we teach our children to call everyone - including their parents - by their first name? I don't think so. Jesus himself used titles of respect. For example, he refers to "father Abraham." Moreover, his great apostle, Saint Paul, told the Corinthians, "I am your father." And he referred to Timothy as his "son." Would Timothy have hesitated to say, "my father Paul"?

Titles of respect are good. I call my physician "doctor." And even though in every Mass, I pray for "our bishop, Peter," I have no plans to call him anything but "archbishop." Bishop means overseer and I realize that ultimately we all have only one Overseer - God. Nevertheless, I am glad God has given us a human being to represent him in that role.

And each one of us has a human father. Even the best dad is only a shadow of the one Father. But we have a commandment that says, "Honor your father - and your mother." I find it significant that the father figure in Jesus' own life was not his biological father (he had none), but his guardian St. Joseph. And St. Joseph of course sets the gold standard for all fathers - natural and spiritual. There's a good movie called "Courageous" that depicts the importance of human fathers. They certainly deserve their title, "dad." A really good father is one who leads his children to our common Father.

What I am saying about biological and adoptive fathers, also applies to spiritual fathers. From earliest times Christians designated certain men as, "father." Obviously, St. Paul but soon other celibate men with no children of their own became spiritual fathers. The desert monks were often called, "abbas" - fathers. They read Matthew's Gospel including 23:9 - "call no man father." But they got Jesus' point: Not to do away with titles of respect, but not to make any person into an idol. And that those with roles of spiritual responsibility would lead people not to themselves - but to the one Father.

Before giving a brief summary, I want to connect this with new missal, which we will begin using in four weeks. I have to admit that I like it a lot. I have not only been reading through the new missal, but I have also used it for private masses on my day off. I am anxious to begin using it for Sunday and daily Masses. We will be learning new words and hearing more complex sentence structures - but it will pay off in a new feeling for who God is and who we are in relation to him.* I will be saying more about this when we have our parish workshop on November 12. For now, I want you to know that the new missal will help us to live what Jesus tels us this Sunday: that God is the purpose and goal of our existence. He is Father, Doctor, Teacher, Master.

So in conclusion: Jesus uses dramatic language to warn against all forms of idolatry - including making a person into an idol. And he reminds teachers, doctors, fathers that our purpose is to lead others to the one Teacher, the one Doctor, the one Father. Amen.


*The recent issue of First Things has article by Anthony Esolen describing how "the new translation of the Mass restores its beauty and splendor." That might seem hyperbolic but I invite read his article and judge for yourself.

General Intercessions for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Thirty-First Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2005: Have We Not One Father?
2002: Call No Man Father

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

SMV Bulletin

Parish Picture Album

40 Days for Life - Everett, WA

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