Disrespect for fathers?

Matthew 23:9—”How can Jesus tell people to call no man their father on earth? Should a father get no respect?”

Understanding the context of this passage is essential for its correct interpretation. Jesus is teaching against the excesses of the Jewish Pharisees and scribes, a group of people very similar in many ways to the clerical class of alems and ulema within Islam. Here Jesus is discussing:

1. Their love for long titles of exaggerated respect one finds today attached to the names of many clerics— Al-Hajj, Pir, Hazrat Maulana Huzur, Saheb, Mahbub-e-Khoda…the list goes on and on. Along with the titles “rabbi” and “master” ( ustad ), Pharisees accepted the title ‘father’, as some clerics still do today. Jesus was using hyperbole, as he undeniably does elsewhere, to condemn an attitude of unquestioning subordination of disciples to fallible human teachers.2. The mindset behind such terms of subordination (common today in many guru-shishya relationships) which expects unquestioned acceptance and obedience of the fallible master without seeking farther authority.

With regard to the surrounding context of this verse, we must understand Jesus’ use of the term ‘father’ strictly as a religious title applied like ‘Rabbi’ or ‘instructor’ to clerics—Jesus was condemning a tendency to regard a cleric as a ‘father’ of infallible truth. The term ‘father’ applied to a cleric within religious structures can exaggerate the actual authority of the cleric, just as ‘rabbi’ and ‘instructor’ can. Jesus was condemning both clerics who claimed these exalted titles and laypeople who called them by these titles. We are bound to this interpretation for the following reasons:

1. Jesus’ entire sermon here is focused exclusively on criticizing scribes and Pharisees; it would be ridiculous to assume that in the midst of this narrow focus he suddenly switches to discussing family relationships for one single verse and then plunges back into criticizing Pharisees.2. To interpret this verse as banning the use of ‘father’ for its natural meaning would do away with the significance of the word for any other context.

3. Jesus repeatedly emphasized the importance of honoring father and mother, the least of which is shown by calling them father and mother. He never condemned earlier prophets who called their parents ‘father’ or ‘mother’

4. Jesus’ followers throughout history have not interpreted this verse as a ban on calling one’s biological father “father.”

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