I am an educated man. I hold a bachelor of arts degree with a double major in mathematics and English from a well-respected university. I have earned three post-graduate degrees (a master of religious education, a master of divinity, and a doctor of philosophy in New Testament) from a theological seminary that was highly respected for its academic excellence at the time I studied there. I spent a total of thirteen-and-a-half years in the pursuit of post-secondary education. When I was a college professor, I was “Doctor Fink.” I liked the sound of that, though I still chuckle at the headline of an article in the local Indiana newspaper announcing my academic appointment: “Fink Named to College Post” (or something like that). With a name like Fink, you need something good to go with it.
When I left the academic world and went to work for a denominational publishing house, I moved into a new environment where almost everybody who was somebody wanted to be called “Doctor.” Seminaries had begun to offer professional doctorates that provided status to pastors and others who hungered for the title but didn’t want the academic rigor of a “true” doctorate. In this new, non-academic world, I occasionally found myself bristling at the pomp of the pseudo-doctors who frequently held true academics in disdain. I recall with special pain one occasion when an announcement was published where five superiors at the publishing house and I were listed as part of a delegation: Dr. So-and-So, Dr. Number Two, Dr. Number Three, Dr. Number Four, Dr. Number Five, and Mike Fink. Two of those “doctors” didn’t even have a professional doctorate much less an honorary one, and I was listed without any title. Ugh! Such is the world of egos.
These days in retirement, hardly anyone knows or cares that I hold a doctoral degree. About the only people who still call me “Doctor” are my former students, and I have tried to dissuade most of them of that affection. As you can see, however, issues of status and ego constantly gnaw at us. Colleges and universities bestow honorary doctorates on benefactors and names buildings after them; but I hardly ever see a benefactor use the title “doctor” based solely on an honorary degree. Yet in religious circles I constantly see the concern for status, titles of honor, and proper deference for the office held. All of this is background for the really important matter—what Jesus had to say about the title “Rabbi.”
Matthew is the only Gospel in which Jesus speaks with reference to the use of the title “Rabbi.” That teaching is recorded in Matthew 23:1-12, where the title “Rabbi” is used twice. The usage is in the midst of an extended passage of seven “woes” directed at the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. That should capture the attention of any teacher, any moralist, or any committed believer. The entire passage deserves our attention, but I want to focus on Matthew 23:6-8 (NASB):
“They [i.e., the scribes and Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.”
Matthew seems to take this teaching seriously, for he applies the principle throughout his Gospel. No one should claim the title or uses it except for the “One teacher,” Jesus himself. Matthew did not stop there, however; for Jesus is correctly called “Rabbi” twice in Matthew’s Gospel—but by whom? Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer (26:25,49)! And note where those honorific titles were used by Judas. In Matthew 26:14 Judas is reported to have approached the chief priests with a plan to betray Jesus. In the very next paragraph, the Passover Supper is planned. When at the Last Supper Jesus revealed that one of his disciples would betray him, the disciples one after another cry out, “Surely not I, Lord?” The last to offer this query, was Judas, who said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Note that Judas not only used the term Rabbi, but Matthew records that he used it in the place of “Lord,” the confession made by the other disciples. A little later the same evening, Jesus and his disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas, however, led an armed band to the garden. He approached Jesus. He spoke the words, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and then kissed Jesus, the sign arranged as the way of identifying the one to be arrested.
Everything Matthew records about the title “Rabbi” is negative, and Matthew generally is viewed as the Gospel most designed to speak to a Jewish audience. Perhaps he is pointing out to his audience that the leaders of their rabbinic schools, the leaders of their religious court (the Sanhedrin), the leaders of their temple and its worship—all those who have longed for prestige and power, all who have striven from positions of power and influence, and all who have lusted after the title Rabbi have been impediments to what God is about in this world. Matthew took all that Jesus said in Matthew 23 seriously. Go back and read that entire chapter and see what other conclusion you could reach about those who longed to be called Rabbi. Then ask yourself, what about those who strive today for similar goals?
Now let me get personal. Many of us are willing to make Jesus our Rabbi. We are willing to study his teachings, follow him in his ministries to the poor and needy, give to support the churches founded in his name. When the final test comes, however, the issue will not be whether or not Jesus is your Rabbi. Instead it will be, “Is Jesus your Lord?” We can say, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” We can give “Greetings, Rabbi” every Sunday morning, and every Sunday night, and at every Wednesday night prayer meeting, and at every church visitation night, and in every Lord’s Supper celebration, and in every blessing we give at the family table. And we will be right in every case that Jesus is the one true Rabbi. But when we with Judas-like intents try to take matters into our own hands, and try to shape the course of destiny in directions we think it ought to go, and try to pocket some silver coins, and becomes hypocrites or impediments to anything that God really counts as important, then the title “Rabbi” won’t cut it because the real word we ought to be uttering is “Lord.”