Minister’s forum: Escaping the title trap
November 2, 2005
“Reverend, Very Reverend, Right Reverend, and Most Reverend … ” How many times have we heard or used these forms of address without asking why? As a hierarchical institution, the church uses titles to designate certain levels of responsibility. Most people do not fault the church for its litany of titles – and the list seems endless – but some are critical of how others perceive them. There are ministers in the church, for example, who see titles as badges of achievement or as rewards for faithful service rather than as evidence of God’s presence in us. The need for designations of power versus the demand for community fellowship remains a thorny problem in the 21st century church.
But this same problem also existed among first-century Christians, who were tempted to model their leadership on the example of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees. The scribes, for example, took pride in their ability to read and write and thought of themselves as intellectuals; but they also used their rhetorical skills and knowledge of the Torah to try to entrap Jesus. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a group of religious reformers who so focused their energies on the exact observance of the law that they neglected virtuous living. Since they wore special insignias in the form of miniature scroll boxes and long tassels, claimed privileges and sought public honors, Matthew rejected their lifestyle (23:1-6). Moreover, he insisted that their use of the honorific titles of rabbi and master be discarded because only Jesus is our teacher. He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In addition, he condemned the use of the title Father (Abba) because it is reserved for God alone. Matthew wanted Christ’s followers to be known as brothers and sisters who acted as servants to one another (23:7-12).
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus clearly distinguishes between what the scribes and Pharisees taught – namely, the word of God – and how they lived. He accused these two groups of failing to practice what they preached. It seems to me that Jesus wants us to live authentic lives – to conform our exterior behavior to our interior beliefs. As I reread this scripture, I was reminded of a woman I knew long ago, when I was a paperboy. Her name was Alice Palmer. I took an immediate liking to her because she always bought those extra copies of my newspaper which I couldn’t sell. What’s more, she would invite me into her home and listen to my boyish chatter over hot chocolate and oatmeal cookies (Oh, those cookies!). She was the best listener I ever knew. Suddenly, one Saturday afternoon, Miss Palmer (as I always called her) told me that she was going to move into a retirement home, and that she had to dispose of her belongings. She wanted to know if there was something in her house that I would like to keep as a memento. Without hesitation, I told her that I would like to have her portable typewriter – the one with the black leather case; and just as quickly, she offered it to me. When I got home, I noticed that there was a name plate on the cover of the typewriter It read: “Alice Freeman Palmer, Ph.D., Professor of History and President of Wellesly College (1919-1937).” I was astounded that the Miss Palmer that I knew on Euclid Street was also an eminent scholar. Never once in our many conversations did she ever refer to herself as “professor,” or “doctor,” or “president,” or indicate that she had been the recipient of many academic honors. She always spoke to me as though I was her equal and that I had something important to say.
I believe that Miss Palmer is the kind of role model that Jesus had in mind when he spoke to the crowds, because she lived the virtue of humility in service to others. As disciples of the gospel, each of us has a special obligation to distinguish between the titles of honor that are bestowed on us and our responsibility as servants. We must bear witness to the gospel in our daily lives.
– Father Richard L. DeMolen is pastor at Our Lady of Tahoe Catholic Church.