Today’s Gospel lection in the daily lectionary is one of those deeply bothersome texts that gets to the heart of the human condition. Mt. 23:1-12 is Jesus’ warning to the people about the religious leaders. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” What are the sins of the religious leaders? In this text it comes down to pride of office. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”
In this text Jesus doesn’t condemn them directly, except when he says they don’t do what they themselves teach. Instead, he tells his listeners, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The implication is clear: “You are not to be called rabbi like they are called rabbi. You are not to be called father like they are called father. You are not to be called instructors like they are called instructors. I want to be fair about this passage. Protestants rightly criticize the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox for calling their priests “father.” [As an aside, have you ever read the books defending the practice? They are embarrassing and laughable bits of eisegesis and wishful thinking.] But while Protestants go about condemning the papists, they ignore the next term. The word translated “instructor” in the NRSV [καθηγητης – kathegetes] is better translated “professor,” but that hits a little too close to home, so the NRSV sticks with “instructor” while the older translations usually stick with “master.”
And “master” could well be the most accurate translation. A kathegetes in the ancient Greek tradition was not unlike a contemporary far eastern “master” who teaches Buddhism, or martial arts (or cooking noodles for that matter), not through intellectual education, but rather through life example. Students typically live with masters. But the closest we Americans get to that sort of thing is Master Yoda instructing young Skywalker or Bruce Lee (oops, I’m showing my age, let’s make that Jaden Smith) learning from a kung fu master.
But “master” is a philosophical red herring which removes the sting of Jesus’ point in the English speaking world. We don’t use this model of learning; we go to school, then college, then grad school. The gold standard of education is a full professorship. Putting “Dr.” in front of a name has become right down common in our culture, but the ability for someone to claim the title “Professor” is still a bit rare. I can call my favorite theology instructor, “Dr. Nebelsick,” but most of us who deeply respected him opted for “Prof. Nebelsick.”(His detractors simply called him “Harold.”)
And if we take Jesus’ words seriously, instead of exegeting them into oblivion, calling Harold (for that was his given name) “Prof. Nebelsick” is every bit as outrageous as calling the parish priest at the local catholic church “Father” or “Padre.”
But this whole “professor” thing may be a bit unfair because that term is generally used in an academic setting rather than a church setting, and Jesus isn’t talking about institutions of higher learning, he’s talking about the church.
Instead let’s consider those insidious triple chevrons Rev. Drs. are expected to wear. Protestant preaching gowns are technically mere academic gowns borrowed from the academy by the early Reformers. Roman Catholic clerical gear had clearly become self-serving rather than God-glorifying, but the idea of the presiding minister putting on a robe that essentially anonymized him was considered a very good thing. So in the best of all Protestant worlds all ministers, when they were presiding at worship, would wear simple academic gowns, with possibly a stole, symbolizing the yoke of Christ. This model fit in beautifully with John Calvin’s emphasis that when preaching, through the miracle of the Holy Spirit, the preached word became Christ’s words to us. The personality of the preacher disappeared beneath the generic robe.
But here’s where the human condition – the pride of office – entered the picture.
Some preachers were also doctors (PhDs or ThDs), and the preaching robe was an academic gown. So wouldn’t it be appropriate for the Reverend Doctor to wear a gown with the three chevrons on the arm indicating his doctorate? Ah, the broadness of their phylacteries and the length of their fringes. When it comes to preaching in a Protestant church, all preachers are created equal. But check for the triple chevron (it’s the third robe down on this web page, if you don’t know what I’m talking about – this one happens to be stripes instead of chevrons) and you’ll discover that some preachers are created more equal than others.
The truth is, we sinful begins can’t help ourselves. We can even spell phylactery any more, much less define it, but we still love our titles and the accouterments of dress that accompany them. Of course, we insist that all those titles and costumes are there to bring glory to God (wink, wink) so we’re exempt from Jesus’ little rant.
And thank God for that! Christian bookstores might have to resort to selling actual books if they couldn’t supply the religious industry with all the gaudy and glorious symbols of their leaders’ humility for $849 a pop.