Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lent Reflection: Jesus the Teacher

The Gospels offer representations of Jesus in word pictures that heighten our imaginations to wonder about Jesus. Included in these narrative portraits of Jesus we find what we might call images of Jesus. That is, we find titles, metaphors, and even vocations that offer to our imaginations a bit of who Jesus was.

As we have entered into this season of Lent, I have been thinking on some of these images, and in doing so, I thought I might offer some thoughts on some of these images of Jesus and what they may say to us about Jesus. The first image is Jesus the teacher.

Good teachers do not simply spew out information to detached student. Effective teachers speak with authority and connect with their students. These kinds of teachers are those who transform the lives of their students and who send them down new paths of discovery.

Jesus was this kind of teacher. While he certainly spoke with knowledge, he also spoke from a point of caring for those who opened their ears and lives to his transformational teachings. Jesus’ teaching was not simply conveyance of information. He came proclaiming the coming of God’s rule over the world and he taught his followers how to experience and live in the rule of God.

But there is something that the Gospels tell us concerning Jesus as a teacher that demonstrates the power of Jesus’ teachings. The Gospel writers often tell us that Jesus spoke with authority, or that the crowds who heard him teach were amazed at his authority. For example, the last two verses of Matthew 7 that close the Sermon on the Mount represent what all of the Gospel writers believed about Jesus as teacher:

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)

Notice the contrast Matthew makes between Jesus’ teaching with authority and the authority of the scribes. Jesus teaches like no one else, exhibiting that his authority as teacher comes from God and is very different from the lawgivers known as the scribes. But, the question is, “Was Jesus simply a better teacher than the scribes, or was there something more?”

There is no doubt that Jesus was a gifted teacher, one who knew the value of communication. But this does not entirely explain his authority; an authority that surpasses all the religious authorities of Judaism.

What appears to make Matthew end the section we call the Sermon on the Mount with such a bold statement about Jesus’ authority is that Jesus’ teaching was a new teaching.

Yes, the Sermon on the Mount reiterates the Ten Commandments, as Jesus clearly states that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. So, Jesus is not about changing the law. He is concerned that people do not transgress anything found in the Ten Commandments. But, Jesus is also concerned for something more.

Indeed, in each interpretation of the commandments, Jesus begins with, “You have heard it said”, followed by a statement from the commandments, which is followed by, “But I say to you.”

In adding “But I say to you,” Jesus was expressing his authority as God’s teacher of God’s law. In doing so, he was confronting his listeners with a deeper and more powerful understanding of the law forbidding the acts found in the Ten Commandments.

When addressing the commandment against killing, the motive behind the taking of a life is equated with the actual physical killing of another. Jesus does not make a distinction between the deep seeded anger one can feel toward another and the physical act of taking the life of another.

When addressing the sin of adultery, Jesus again speaks about the inward thoughts of a person as equal to the act of committing adultery. Jesus draws out the deeper significance of the law and widens the actions that lead to entrapment to include the lustful gazes and thoughts one has toward another.

With each rehearsal of these longstanding commandments, Jesus presses his audience to see the connection between attitude and action; a connection that is inseparable.

So, at one level, Jesus’ teaching affirmed the law that Israel was still to follow, but his authority as God’s teacher comes through as he calls his hearers to look deeper into the law, at the intent of the law, and at the sin that resides inside of us, in our thoughts and intentions.

But the Sermon on the Mount also brings out another aspect of why Jesus’ authority was greater than that of the scribes. His teachings here, and in other places in the Gospels, offered a new way of existing in the world; a very radical way of existing.

In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-11, Jesus offers an upside down way of living. In these statements, Jesus just about mentions every group that is forgotten by the world, and certainly forgotten by the political and religious elites. These are not just statements about some sort of spiritual status. When he mentions the poor in spirit, he is also thinking of those who are really poor. When he speaks about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he also thinks of those who really hunger and thirst.

Jesus is telling his audience that those who are on the underside of society are truly those loved and blessed by God. Indeed, these are those who are a part of God’s kingdom. And, in an implicit way, Jesus is calling all his followers to take on these characteristics. Jesus the teacher calls us to radical living.

This new way of living radically also calls us to radical relationships of love. In the Sermon on the Mount, we also find those infamous words, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” And, yet again, Jesus follows this with a”but” statement: “But I say to you, when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other.”

But, perhaps one of Jesus’ most radical teachings in the Sermon digs deep inside everyone of us: “You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’, but I say to you love your enemies.” There is probably no more radial a statement about how Christians ought to live than this one.

As the inaugurator of the reign of God, Jesus teaches a new approach to ethical living within God’s rule. He is the authoritative teacher who redefines the law in terms that reflect a deeper and more radical approach to the old standard of living. 

Have we committed ourselves to following the ways he teaches? This Lenten Season might be a good time to start.

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