NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 6-7: “These men love having positions of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues. They love for people to show respect to them in the marketplaces and to call them ‘Rabbi.’”
We learn that the word Rabbi literally means: “my great one,” and figuratively as, “my master,” or “my teacher.” It became a title of respect used by everyone for Torah scholars, even those of the same rank.1 No doubt, this was derived from what Jewish historians tell us about Jehoshaphat king of Judah. They say: “Every time he beheld a scholar or disciple he rose from his throne, and embraced and kissed him, calling him Father, Father; Rabbi, Rabbi; Mari, Mari!”2 The Aramaic term “Mari” is equivalent to master or lord.3
When it comes to seeking places of honor and wanting to be addressed by titles of respect, early church scholars had a few things to say. For instance, Origen says: “We must first admit that this kind of delight is found not only among the scribes and Pharisees but also in Christ’s church, and not only at dinner, while taking places at the table, but also the front seats in church. These are the deacons or those who wish to become deacons, yet who ‘squander the savings of widows, praying for a good opportunity’ and yet ‘will receive a greater judgment.’ They covet even more avidly the highly visible ‘first seats’ of those called priests. Indeed, however, even they do not put as much effort into their scheming as those who are called bishops, the ones who love ‘being called Right Reverend by men.’ It is they who ought most clearly to understand that a bishop is to be ‘above reproach’ and so on,424 so that he would be called ‘bishop’ not by men [only] but rather before God.”5
Then, early church preacher Chrysostom gives his input: “Everything Jesus accused them of was small and trifling. Yet He was dealing with the cause of all the evils: ambition, the violent seizing of the teacher’s chair, and so on. These He brings forward and corrects with diligence, confronting this strongly and earnestly charging them. His own disciples needed to be warned about these matters.”6 As a minister or teacher, it is one thing to seek honor and recognition in order to elevate oneself, but it is another to receive honor which then can be attributed to the One who is responsible for our calling and anointing. This was the apostle Paul’s goal,7 and it should always be ours.
Verse 8: “But you must not be called Rabbis. You are all equal as brothers and sisters. You have only one Rabbi.”
So much for the Pharisees and other religious leaders, now our Lord focuses on His followers. The force of the original language here seems to place the emphasis upon title-seeking for ego’s sake, and not to do the job itself. Jesus doesn’t say “Do not seek to become a teacher,” but rather He simply admonishes them, “Do not seek to be called, teacher,” in the sense that you now have no one above you or anyone you need to consult with; as though you are the original source of this knowledge and wisdom.
This hints at the real sin involved; the search for recognition, for acknowledgment sake; to gain fame, popularity, esteem, exaltation and accolades for what one has made of themselves, rather than for what God has made them. In seminary, I often heard it said of some of my fellow seminarians, “They are here for the degree, not the education.”
If credit for hard work and study result in being appointed to help others gain greater understanding and knowledge about our Lord and our faith, there is no reason to shun the position of a teacher, as long as God gets all the credit and acclaim. Having worked with many Jewish Rabbis, I have come to the conclusion that this title today is more equivalent to the Christian term “Reverend,” than someone who claims to be a scholar and whose words cannot be challenged.
Verse 9: “And don’t call anyone on earth ‘Father.’ You have one Father. He is in heaven.”
Now, when our Lord forbids calling anyone “Father,” it is obvious He was not talking about the human term for a male parent. It would have been hard to explain away all the scriptures that speak of honoring one’s father. In seminary studies, it is part of the curriculum to study about the early church fathers. But Jesus was aiming at another use of the word “Father” that was use often applied to someone who was seen as a holy and wise interpreter of Scripture.
Three early church scholars had some interesting things to say about these titles, especially as it was understood in their day. For instance, Origen offered this commentary: “You have one teacher, and you are all brothers to each other. For you have been born anew, not only from water but also from the spirit, and you have received the spirit of adoption, so that it might be said of you that you were “born not of the flesh, nor of the will of man” but from God.8 It is hard to imagine this being said of anyone or any son until now. You do not call anyone on earth ‘Father’ in the sense that you say ‘our Father’ of the One who gives all things through all ages and according to the divine plan. Whoever ministers with the divine word does not put himself forward to be called ‘teacher,’ for he knows that when he performs well it is Christ who is within him. He should only call himself “servant” according to the command of Christ, saying, ‘Whoever is greater among you, let him be the servant of all.’9”10
Then we read in Chrysostom’s sermon on these verses where Jesus says: “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” Chrysostom comments: “This is why Paul says, ‘For who is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers?’11 — not masters. Again, ‘call no man your father.’ This is said in order that they may know whom they ought to call Father in the highest sense. It is not said frivolously as if no one should ever be called father. Just as the human master is not the divine Master, so neither is the father the Father who is the cause of all, both of all masters and of all fathers.”12
And finally, Jerome gives his interpretation: “No one should be called teacher or father13 except God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the Father because all things are from Him. He alone is the teacher because through Him are made all things and through Him, all things are reconciled to God. But one might ask, ‘Is it against this precept when the apostle calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles? Or when, as in colloquial speech widely found in the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, they call each other Father?’ Remember this distinction. It is one thing to be a father or a teacher by nature, another to be so by generosity. For when we call a man father and reserve the honor of his age, we may thereby be failing to honor the Author of our own lives. One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: The fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly, this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.”14
Verses 10-11: “And you should not be called ‘masters.’ You have only one Master, the Messiah. Whoever serves you like a servant is the greatest among you.”
What our Lord opposed most was anyone setting themselves up with scriptural authority over others so that they became dependent on them to interpret doctrines and ordinances instead of teachers who helped those to learn who came to them for help and instruction. This was often done to bring honor to themselves. It also put their words above the words of the law and the Bible. Thus, such devotees would no longer seek God for help and guidance, they would simply depend on the word of man.
For instance, in the Jewish Mishnah we read: “If all the sages of Israel were in one scale of the balance and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus in the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul, however, said in his name: If all the sages of Israel, together with Eliezer ben Hyrcanus were in one scale of the balance, Elazar ben Arach would outweigh them.”15 Jesus also forbids them accepting the title “Master.” The Greek word used here also means “guide,” or “teacher.” But it also applied to those who “mastered it over others.”
We find such a reference in Latin writings: “From the time that Rome mastered the whole of Italy she was emboldened to aspire to govern all mankind, and after driving from off the sea the Carthaginians, whose maritime strength was superior to that of all others, and subduing Macedonia, which until then was reputed to be the most powerful nation on land, she no longer had as rival any nation either barbarian or Greek; and it is now in my day already the seventh generation that she has continued to hold sway over every region of the world, and there is no nation, as I can see, that disputes her universal dominion or protests against being ruled by her.”16
In the Jewish community, this word was associated with “Rabbi.” According to Jewish resources, in the Jewish synagogues (schools) in Palestinian, the sages were addressed as “Rabbi” (my master). Jesus was not prohibiting these titles of respect to denigrate His followers, but rather that they not be tempted into thinking themselves better than anyone else, especially their brethren and fellow believers.
Chrysostom had this message for those who might misinterpret Jesus’ used of the word “one.” He says: “Previously when Jesus had asked, ‘What do you think of the Christ?’ it is worth noting that He did not say, ‘What do you think of me?’ So it is here that He says you have one master, and He does not make this subjective by saying ‘me’ but ‘the Christ.’ Yet note that this passage repeatedly speaks of the one master, the one teacher, repeatedly applying the term one. Does this term apply to the Father alone so as to reject the only begotten Son? Is the Father a guide? All would agree, and none would challenge it. And yet ‘one,’ He says, ‘is your guide, even Christ.’ For just as Christ, being called the one guide, does not cast out the Father from being guide, even so, the Father, being called Master, does not cast out the Son from being Master. For the expression ‘one’ is spoken in contradistinction to the human way of speaking and within the rest of the creation.”17
This is another way of saying that no matter how many we may have among us whose learning and studies have put them above the peers as experts on interpreting God’s Word as it relates to knowing the original languages and understanding the context through historical examination, in the end, there is only One who ranks above all others and that is God Himself. And as His children, He is the One we call Father in the sense that He is the head of our family.
1 Jewish New Testament Commentary by David H. Stern, loc. cit.
2 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Makkoth, folio 24a
3 Ibid., Footnote (13)
4 1 Timothy 3:2
5 Origen: Commentary on Mathew 12
6 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 72.3
7 1 Corinthians 10:31
8 John 1:13
9 Mark 9:35; 10:43-44
10 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 12
11 1 Corinthians 3:5
12 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 72.3
13 The use of “Father” as the normal title for Catholic priests, whether attached to a diocese or members of a religious order, is a very recent practice. It originated in Ireland and spread to the United States with the Irish immigration of the 1840’s. When Cardinal Manning was archbishop of Westminster (1865-1892) he worked hard to establish this custom as the universal practice in England as well. In France, Catholics use “Père” in addressing a priest, while in Spanish-speaking countries they are called “Padre.” Today, Roman Catholics approve usage of “Father” for priests as being the same as what the apostle Paul said: “Paul regularly referred to Timothy as his child: “Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor. 4:17); “To Timothy, my true child in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:2); “To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (2 Tim. 1:2).
14 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew: Bk. 4, 23.10
15 Mishnah, op. cit. Fourth Division: Nizikin, Tractate Aboth, Ch. 2:12
16 Roman Antiquities, by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Book I:3
17 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 72.3