The Letter of James, which some scholars contend echoes the words and teaching of Jesus more than any other portion of the scriptures outside the Gospels, provides the following exhortation: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). This statement could well the the corollary of the intriguing comment that Jesus makes to his disciples and the crowds in the midst of today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 23:1-12):
“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” (Matt. 23:1-3).
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, James admonishes us. Be doers of the law and not simply promulgators Jesus seems to be saying.
Both of these statements are directed at the faithful in general, but both are particularly pointed for those who are in the position of teaching the faith. Call no one rabbi (great one or teacher) Call no one Father. Call no one instructor.
But while they are particularly pointed for religious types–I’m often called “Father Jody” after all, the issue can be pushed. St. Jerome dealt with the question of whether anyone could rightly be called teacher or father:
“No one should be called teacher or father 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 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. (Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 4.23.10)
Jerome has touched on something important: the fact that Christians believe that Christ plays an ongoing role as our great Teacher. One of the great classics of the early Christians centuries is entitled “Christ the Teacher” (Cyril of Alexandria), and there is a particular Iconographic depiction of Christ that bears this name as well. You see, as one commentary puts it “Christians have only one teacher, Christ, in the sense that they are lifelong disciples of him alone. Other teachers play a transitory role.” (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary)
The problem is when religious leaders, teachers and others forget the fact that we are all answerable to that which is greater than ourselves. When this forgetfulness is coupled with power it leads to abuse. As St. Chrysostom says in his commentary on this passage: “For such are all they who practice self restraint in mere words while being unforgiving and grievous to bear when they have had no experience of the difficulty in actions. This is no small fault. In no small way does Jesus increase the former charge. (St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 72.2)
So, we understand how it is that a person can be called “teacher” if they have association with the Teacher, that is, Christ. But what about “Father?”
Just as St. Jerome indicates that no one should be called teacher except insofar as they have association with the Teacher, so does C.S. Lewis argue that to call a person father is only rightly done insofar as they reflect the virtues of the Father, that is God, the archetype of our virtuous and righteous actions. Lewis was not, and most people today are not, so naive as to think that every human father actually acts in this way. Unfortunately there is ample reason for the fact that many people have problems reflecting upon God as Father because of their relationships with their human fathers. Recognizing that troubling reality does not prevent us from seeing in this fact a clarion call to greater virtue among human fathers–they are called to exhibit the love of God. They are called, as we all are, to be doers of the word.
I would say that the same is true in talking of the mothering virtues as well–they are archetypical of God, who is spoken of in scripture as brooding over Jerusalem as a hen broods over her young (Psalm 91:4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). This imagery is appropriated in a rather jarring, but wonderful and effective way by Johnny Cash in his song When the Man Comes around, in the phrase, “When the Father Hen shall call his Chickens home.”
This is why Paul can use both masculine and feminine imagery in reference to his relationship with the Thessalonians. He and his co-workers where “gentle [...] like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children,” and in our lesson for today, Paul says they “dealt with each [of the Thessalonian believers] like a father with his children,urging and encouraging [...] and pleading that [they] lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
Anything that is good, anything that is virtuous in humanity is good in reference to God, is good in the sense that it reveals the character, the heart, of God. And working to share the nature of Christ is precisely what it means to be a disciple, a student. The word is the same from which we get the term “discipline,” so to be a disciple of Christ is nothing less than to be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only. It implies action.
So before you give anyone any sort of honor, square them up and see if they are striving to lead a virtuous and faithful life. Are they humble before God and are they trying as best they can to love their neighbors. Are they truly exhibiting the passion of a faithful teacher, the care of a spiritual father. Are our mothers nurturing and our fathers supporting (recognizing that, of course, men and women can each do both of these things). In other words are we working every day to be more and more Christ like, and reveal in a more complete way the character of the God in whose image we were created in whose presence we thrive. This is what it means to be doers of the word. This is what it means to always be students of Christ the Teacher.