When studying the bible one must be very careful to read in context. Isolating verses can lead to misinterpretation of the biblical text. This is very apparent when one actually reads the verses adjacent to Matthew 23:9.
Matthew 23: 9 reads (The New American Bible) Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Taking this verse literally would mean that we could never call our paternal parent father without sinning. When you consider that the Aramaic form of Father could be translated as Dad, Pop, Papa, etc, then the only thing left is to call our male parent by his first name! Some will say that it is obvious that Jesus was not referring to parents, yet he did not add except for parents. Even if allowances are made for parents, we are forced to conclude that we should refrain from such terms as “Founding Fathers” or “Church Fathers!” The only way to comprehend Jesus’ true meaning is to read the text surrounding this Matthew 23:9.
Starting with the first verse in Matthew 23 and reading onward, we have Jesus exhorting his followers not to be like the Pharisees because “…They preach and do not practice” Mathew 23:3. In other words, these particular leaders were hypocrites, who expected their followers to abide by rules which the Pharisees themselves did not adhere.
In Matthew 23: 5 we are further told that “All their works are performed to be seen...” In other words, these men wanted the fame that comes from being thought Godly with none of the actual work, responsibility or love of God that is required. It was not with the aim to glorify God that these men were serving the poor and keeping the law but only to gain praise for their own selves. Jesus warned the disciples earlier about such an attitude in Matthew 6:1-8
But we reach the crux of the manner when we read Matthew 23:6-7 Jesus says of the Pharisees “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation, “Rabbi.” These men wanted honor, respect and glory. They were not humble but prideful and desired titles for themselves.
Jesus instructs his followers not only to not use the phrase, Father, but in verse 8, he forbids the use of Rabbi-or teacher. Our word Doctor is based on the Latin word for teacher. If Jesus really meant that we can no longer use the title Father, then neither are we allowed to call anyone professor, teacher or doctor. We can not even use the heading Mister or Mistress because Matthew 23:10 says “Do not be called Master; you have but one master, the Messiah. Mister is a derivative of Master. So taking these verses literally would mean that no one can be called Mr. Jones, Mrs. Smith or Miss Doe.
In his sermons, Jesus often used hyperbole. For those who are unfamiliar with the definition of this word, hyperbole is an obvious exaggeration spoken to make a point. An example would be “I waited forever.” Of course we know the speaker did not wait forever. We understand that the speaker is not fibbing but using exaggeration to make a point about the length of his wait.
Jesus, himself, used the terms Father and Teacher, when he spoke. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus says that the rich man calls out for Father Abraham. (Luke 16: 24) He speaks of teachers and masters in Matthew 10: 24:25.
Apparently Jesus’ followers all believed that the Messiah was using hyperbole, because they refer to themselves as Teacher and Father several times in the New Testament. For example, Paul not only refers to Timothy as his beloved son in the Lord in 1 Corinthians 4:17 and 1 Timothy 1:2 but even says to his fellow Christians in 1 Corinthians 4: 15 Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The beauty of understanding that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole and not commanding that no one use the titles Father, Doctor, Teacher or Mister is that we can look into the deeper meaning of the passage and discern how it applies to us today.
In today’s age of celebrity, a person’s fame sometimes appears more important then their actual morality or worthiness. As Christians we are to glorify God instead of ourselves. That is a message that is still relevant today.