What is the most asked question of a priest at a wedding reception?
It is the most asked question of me as a priest at wedding receptions. Perhaps you will recognize it. “Fr., did that mass count for tomorrow?”
My response is pretty consistent – “Are you sure you want to ask me that question, because I am pretty sure that you will NOT like the answer.” It is a question I get asked somewhat frequently – and not just at weddings. The reasons given are varied: “Fr, I have a big party I’m hosting on Saturday night; a football game I am heading up the tailgating for; I’m chauffeuring my kids a hundred different places this weekend, a fill in the blank – And then the question: “Will you give me a dispensation for not attending mass on Sunday?” I tell them, if they are insistent, that it is truly not MY decision to make. THEY want to give me that power, to be absolved from that personal choice about which they will have to stand before God on the judgment day. But that is not mine to make. And as often as I am asked that question, whether seriously or jokingly, I am put into the heart of today’s gospel.
“Call no man rabbi. Call no man father. Call no one master.” That does not mean that I couldn’t call my dad “father” when he was alive, nor are you prohibited from calling your eighth grade educator ‘teacher’, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t call the ordained spiritual leaders of the parish ‘father’ such as Fr. Johnson or myself. In its scriptural context, Jesus is telling the people not to hand responsibility for their lives over to a particular individual, nor to a power structure. We are only to hand our lives over to God. It is not up to me to give or deny permission to miss one of the precepts of the church, and one of the ways we fulfill the 4th commandment. Call no man rabbi or father or teacher. Because you and you alone are responsible for the decisions of your spiritual life.
Yet in a hundred ways is it easy for me to find myself doing just that.
- Call no one rabbi. The Rabbis put themselves into a position to mediate the people’s experience of God. They were the in-between person. You went to God through them and God came to you through them. Jesus says in effect – “No one can pray in place of you, and no one can dismiss your need to have an authentic relationship with God.” It is what you and you alone are responsible for. And as often as I have neglected my prayer, and been lax in my spending time with Jesus; as often as I have dispensed myself from having to say my divine office, I have called someone Rabbi.
- Call no one Master (or Teacher in our idiom). Where have I turned for wisdom? When I first was put in charge of both the Newman Center AND St. Ann parish, in one way or the other, I got the same message,: “Take care of yourself.” And though they didn’t necessarily say it, sometimes I heard “first” added to the end of that sentence… If I want to be true to Jesus, then I must trust HIS insight into leadership: The greatest among you must be your servant. Otherwise, I have called someone else teacher…
- Call no one Father. The reading from Malachi is addressed to priests in an instruction about their common worship. “Have we not all the one Father? Has not the one God created us? Why have you broken faith with each other…? Malachi teaches that authority and power are given to us not so that we can claim ‘Mine’ – but that we might claim ‘ours’. That we might come together because we can’t make this journey on our own…. That we might live together honoring each other’s lives before we ever set foot in this space. Call no one Father unless you are in right relationship with both God and our neighbor. It is what this communion – this common union of ours is about. And as often as I have denied those bonds, as often as I do not live my faith as an example for others to follow, I have called someone else father.
“Does this mass count for tomorrow?” I am sure that I could be very popular if I routinely answered that question they way they want me to: “Of course it does. You went to church over the weekend. That is more than enough for God.” But that is not my decision to make for you. Call no one Rabbi, Teacher, Father. Do not dump your call to discipleship onto someone else. I am accountable for my choices. And each one here is accountable for their own.
And if that is not enough a reason to pray for each other, I don’t know what is…