A number of years ago, I received the following inquiry.
We had a discussion in Sunday School about what Jesus called Joseph. We know that he call Mary Mother, but we don’t think he called Joseph Father. We think he just used Father when he was talking to/about God. What do you think?
Here are my thoughts regarding your question. Pass it around if you like, but remember my word isn’t the last word. I simply submit to you my thoughts.
If the class doesn’t think Jesus called Joseph father, how did He address him? Were there any suggestions? I can only guess that this question stems from one of two things: Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:9, or a belief that Joseph was somehow less than a “real” father to Jesus since there wasn’t a genuine biological connection. (I reject both.)
Though we have no record of Jesus ever addressing Joseph at all, I believe it is safe to “assume” that Jesus addressed him in the manner that was appropriate and respectful. For Jesus would certainly follow the 6th Mosaic command to honor father and mother (Ex. 20:12).
We must also remember that while Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus, he certainly was Jesus’ legal father and he functioned as both legal and physical father in all normal aspects of fatherhood apart from conception.
We have no grounds to assume that there was any type of sibling rivalry which is often the case today in “step-parent/step-child” relationships. Neither do I have reason to believe that Jesus ever said, “I don’t have to do that, you’re not my father!” or that Joseph ever said something like, “If you were my child, I’d . . . ” I say this because I believe Jesus treated Joseph exactly like a biological father should be treated according to Mosaic law – with honor. Granted, I’m arguing from silence here, but from the other aspects of Jesus’ life and personal relationships, I think it is safe to draw such conclusions.
So, how did other children respectfully address the man to whom their mother was married? The only thing we see in the New Testament for this relationship is the word father. In the New Testament the only Greek word used for this person is “PATER”. There are NO exceptions regardless of who is speaking, Jesus or “regular” people.
I think there are two important issues to pursue so that we can understand this question: the particular context of the “prohibition” and Jesus’ acceptance or rejection of the use of the word “father” elsewhere in the Scripture.
First, let’s deal with the latter. Immediately, Matthew 8:21 comes to mind. In this passage Jesus is dealing with a certain scribe about the COST of true discipleship, a small part of the cost being “leaving everything behind.” Then another of the disciples interrupted by saying, “First, let me go bury my father.” Jesus’ response was not, “Don’t address anyone on earth as father!” Why? Because the context and issue at hand was different than that in Matthew 23.
Also in Matthew 15:4-6 we see Jesus himself quoting the commands which had been penned by God and brought down from Sinai by Moses: “Honor your father and your mother; and He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.” In this case Jesus is rebuking those who had abused their responsibility toward their parents, thus breaking the command. If, as some assume from His statements in Matthew 23, we should never refer to our male parent as father, why did Jesus not CORRECT rather than PROTECT what Moses delivered? He couldn’t because there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with addressing the man married to your mother (whether you are his physical descendant or not) as “father.” Family relationships are not at stake in Matthew 23.
If family relationships are not at stake in Matthew 23, then what is going on? Jesus is giving a scathing assessment of the religious leaders of the day. He summarizes their offenses in verse 5, “All their works they do to be seen by men.” In other words, they are hypocrites seeking vain glory and honor from those over whom they have charge. They are seeking titles of power and prominence in this world.
Notice the three titles he forbids: rabbi/teacher, father, leader. All of these could be considered “power positions” in this context which are NOT forbidden elsewhere in Scripture. In fact, the writers of Scripture use them in a positive sense. For example, Paul writes to the Ephesians that “teachers” were given to the body for her edification. As mentioned above, Jesus positively quotes the 6th command which identifies the male parent as “father”.
Jesus is trying to underscore for the multitudes and disciples the distinction between true religious faith and religious “power brokering.” Jesus says: “You are all brethren (vs. 8).” “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant (vs. 11).” “He who humbles himself shall be exalted (vs. 12).” He is highlighting the abusive power system that was in place and exhorting the people to breakout of such by recognizing their teacher, leader and father who comes from heaven. Those whom they were currently following were certainly not from heaven.
If we understand this prohibition in this manner, then we can easily reconcile both Jesus’ and other NT writers’ positive use of these terms with Jesus’ command not to use them in Matthew 23.
The application for us today is very real. Many men and women fill positions of church leadership as religious power brokers. In many cases there is no difference between our day and Jesus’. Therefore we should receive Jesus’ warning not to follow in the footsteps of those who abuse their position for the purpose of being seen by men. Neither should we submit to such phonies.