As a priest, I am called to preach and teach. As such, I must look to Jesus Christ as my model. In this, I refer to the real Jesus of Scripture. Too many people today have refashioned Jesus into a sort of “harmless hippie,” an affable affirmer, a pleasant sort of fellow who healed the sick, blessed the poor, and talked about love, but in a very fuzzy, “anything goes” manner. But absent from this image is the prophetic Jesus, who accepted no compromise and called out the hypocrisy in many of His day.
Thus I must look to the real Jesus of Scripture. The real Jesus clearly loved God’s people, but on account of that love could not suffer some limited notion of salvation and healing for them. Rather, He zealously insisted that they receive the whole counsel of God. He insisted that dignity for them was nothing less than the perfection of God Himself (cf Mat 5:41).
As a teacher, Jesus often operated in the mode of the prophets. Prophets have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Truth be told, each of us is in both categories. We must be able to accept the Jesus who one moment says, “Blessed are you,” and the next adds, “Woe to you.” Jesus the teacher and prophet will affirm whatever truth there is in us, but, like any good teacher, He will put a large red “X” beside our wrongful answers and thoughts.
Yet despite Jesus’ often fiery and provocative stance, Scripture speaks of His renown as a preacher and the eagerness with which many heard Him.
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).
Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned empty handed saying: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).
And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).
And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).
But even Jesus could have a bad day in the pulpit. In Nazareth, they tried to throw Him off a cliff for suggesting that Gentiles might have a place in the Kingdom (Lk 4:29). In Capernaum, many left Him and would not follow Him any longer because of His teaching on the Eucharist (Jn 6:66). In Jerusalem, the crowd said that He had a demon because He called Himself “I AM” (Jn 8:48). And thus Jesus warns all who would teach and preach: Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).
And thus Jesus was a complex preacher and teacher. He was no mere affirmer. He often unsettled and troubled people, even though He consoled and comforted them at other times.
Let’s consider some of the qualities of Jesus as a teacher and ponder the sort of balance that He manifests. It is a balance between His love for us, His students, and His zeal to tolerate no lasting imperfection or error in the pupils whom He loves too much to deceive. I present these qualities of Jesus as a teacher in no particular order. Some are “positive” in the sense that they are aspects of His kindness and patience; others are “negative” in the sense that they illustrate His refusal to accept anything less than final perfection in us.
I. His authority – The Scriptures often speak of the “authority” with which Jesus taught. For example, Scripture says of Jesus, he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Mat 7:29). For indeed the teachers of Jesus’ time played it safe, quoting only reputable authorities in a wooden sort of way; but Jesus taught with authority.
The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia, meaning to teach out of (one’s own) substance, to speak to the substance of what is taught. Jesus would often say, “You have heard that is was said … But I say to you” (cf Mat 5 inter al). And so Jesus spoke from His experience of knowing His Father and of knowing and cherishing the Law and its truth in His own life. He brought a personal weight to what He said. He “knew” of what He spoke; He did not merely know “about” it.
This personal authority was compelling. Even today, those with this gift stand apart from those who merely preach and teach the “safe” maxims of others without adding their own experience to the truth that they proclaim. Jesus personally bore witness in His own life to the truth He proclaimed; and people noticed the difference.
How about you? Each of us is called to speak out of the experience of the Lord in our own life and to be able to say with authority, “I can verify that everything declared by the Lord and His Body, the Church, is true because in the laboratory of my own life I have tested it and come to experience it as true and transformative!”
II. His witness – A witness is one who recounts what he has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears, what he himself knows and has experienced. Jesus could say to the Jews of his time, If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word (Jn 8:55). He thus attests to what he personally knows. He is not just reciting facts that others have said.
In a courtroom, a witness must attest to what he has seen and heard for himself; if he merely recounts what others have said it is called “hearsay.” A witness can raise his right hand and say, “It is true, and I will swear to it. I have seen it for myself.”
Jesus could witness to what He had heard and seen, of His Father and of us.
We cannot witness immediately to all that Jesus could, for He had lived with the Father from all eternity, but we can speak to what the Lord has done in our life and how we have come to know Him in conformity with His revealed Word.
III. His respect for others – The Latin root of the word “respect” gives it the meaning “look again” (re (again) + spectare (to look)). Frequently in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel, there appears the phrase, “Jesus looked at them and said …”
In other words, Jesus was not merely issuing dictates to an unknown, faceless crowd; He looked at them. And He looks at you and me as well. It is a personal look, a look that seeks to engage you and me in a very personal way. He is speaking to you, to me. His teaching is not just for the ancient crowd; it is for you and for me. He looks to you, and He looks again. Are you looking? Are you listening?
Do you look with respect to those whom you are called to teach, or to the children you are called to raise? Do you engage them by your look of respect and love?
IV. His love and patience for sinners – Jesus could be very tough, even exhibiting impatience. But in the end, He is willing to stay with us in a long conversation. One text says, When Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them at great length (Mk 6:34). Yes, He teaches us at great length; He stays in long conversations with us. He knows that we are dull of mind and hard of heart, so He persistently and consistently teaches.
Do we do that? Or do we quickly write people off? Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who, frankly, was quite rude to Him at first (John 4). He had a long conversation with Nicodemus, who also was at times resistant and argumentative (Jn 3). He had a long conversation with His Apostles, who were slow and inept.
How about us? Are we willing to experience the opposition of sinners, the resistance of the fleshly and worldly? Do we have love and patience for those whom we teach? I have met some great Catholics who were once enemies of the Faith. Someone stayed in a conversation with them. What about us?
V. His capacity to afflict and console – Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” but just as often He said, “Woe to you.” Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Each of us falls into both categories. We need comfort but are often too comfortable in our sins. A true prophet fears no man and speaks to the truth of God.
Thus for a true prophet (like Jesus) there are no permanent allies to please and no permanent enemies to oppose. The determination of every moment is based on conformity or lack of conformity to the truth of God. Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah” (Mat 16:17), and He gave him the keys to the Kingdom and the power to bind and loose. But in the very next passage, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mat 16:23)
No true prophet or teacher can say, “Correct,” or “Blessed are you” every moment, because we all fall short of the glory of God. Jesus had absolute integrity when it came to assessing everything by the standard of God’s truth and Word. Do we?
VI. His parables – Stories are an important way to teach. A story that registers with us will rarely be forgotten. It is said that Jesus used more than 45 parables; some are full stories while others are just brief images. He used parables to link His sometimes-complex teaching to everyday life and to plant a seed of truth for our further reflection.
What stories and examples do you use? Teachings that consistently fail to make use of these risk being seen as merely abstract and can easily be forgotten.
That said, parables are somewhat like “riddles.” They admit of various understandings and interpretations. A good parable leaves its listener wanting more, seeking a definitive interpretation.
For example, a movie will sometimes have an ambiguous ending, stirring up hope for a sequel that will provide more information. Some stories and parables are compact and definitive; others are open-ended and ambiguous, almost begging for an ending.
Consider that the parable of the Prodigal Son is not really finished. It ends with the Father pleading for the second son to enter the feast. Does the son enter or does he refuse to do so? This detail is not supplied, because you are the son and you have to supply the answer. Will you enter or will you stay outside sulking that if the kingdom of Heaven includes people you don’t like then you’d just as soon stay outside?
Parables are powerful, but for different reasons. Learn stories and learn to share them!
VII. His questions – Jesus asked well over a hundred questions in the Gospels. Here are just a few: “What did you go out to the dessert to see?”, “Why do you trouble the woman?”, “How many loaves do you have?”, “Do you say this of me on your own, or have others told you of me?”.
Good teachers ask questions and do not rush supply the answer to every question. A question is pregnant with meaning; it invites a search. The “Socratic method” uses questions to get to the truth, especially on a personal level: “Why do you ask that?”, “What do you mean by this?”, “Do you think there are any distinctions needed in your claim?”.
This method makes a person look inward to his attitudes, prejudices, and presumptions. Good teachers ask their students a lot of questions; questions make people think.
Here is a list of one hundred questions that Jesus asked: 100 Questions Jesus Asked. Read them; they will make you think—a lot!
VIII. His use of “focal instances” – Jesus does not propose to cover every moral situation a person might encounter or teach every doctrinal truth in a single afternoon.
For example, many today say that Jesus never mentioned homosexual acts and from His silence conclude that He must therefore approve of them. Really? He also never mentioned rape. Do you suppose that He approves of rape? Further, He did speak of homosexual acts, through His appointed spokesmen (the Apostles) who condemned them.
No teacher can cover every possibility, every sin, or every scenario. So Jesus uses “focal instances,” in which He illustrates a principle.
This is most obvious in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where, to illustrate the principle that we are to fulfill the law and not merely keep its minimal requirements, He uses six examples or “focal instances.” Jesus speaks to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And in Mathew 25:31ff, the Lord uses the corporal works of mercy to illustrate the whole of the Law.
These are not an exhaustive treatments of the moral life. Through the use of illustrations, the Lord asks us to learn the principle of fulfillment and then apply it to other instances.
Good teachers teach principles, since they cannot possibly envision every scenario or situation. Having instructed their students in first principles, they can trust that their students will make solid decisions in many diverse situations.
Good teachers teach students to think for themselves, not in isolation, but in ongoing communion with the principles learned, and through dialogue with authorities when necessary for assistance and accountability.
IX. His use of hyperbole – Jesus uses a lot of hyperbole. It is easier, He tells us, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven (Mk 10:25). If your eye scandalizes you, gouge it out (Mat 5:29). There was a man who owed ten thousand talents (the equivalent of a trillion dollars today) (Mat 18:24). It would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a great millstone about your neck than to scandalize one of my little ones (Mat 18:6).
Hyperbole has memorable effect. Who of us can forget Jesus’ parable about a man with a 2×4 coming out of his eye who rebukes his neighbor for the splinter in his? I often tell my congregation, “Go to church or go to Hell,” which is my way of saying that missing Mass is a mortal sin.
Once, one of my seminary professors signaled me that I was giving an incorrect and heretical answer to a complex theological issue by saying, “Charles, you are on the edge of an abyss.” His response made me stop immediately and give the correct and orthodox answer!
Good teachers use hyperbole at the right moments.
X. His use of servile fear – Jesus made frequent use of “fear-based arguments.” He warned of Hell, of unquenchable fire, and of the worm that does not die. His parables feature many summary judgements in which people are found unprepared, are excluded from Heaven, or are cast into darkness. One parable ends with a king burning the town of those who failed to accept his invitation to his son’s wedding banquet (Mat 22:7). Another has a king summoning those who rejected him so that they could be slain before his eyes (Lk 19:27). Jesus warns of the wailing and grinding of teeth. He also warns of a permanent abyss between Heaven and Hell that no one will be able to cross.
Many people today are dismissive of fear-based arguments, but Jesus used them—He used them a lot. So Jesus never got the memo that this is a poor way to teach. While the spiritually mature can respond to loving arguments, many are not that mature, and thus a healthy dose of fear and the threat of unending regret is often necessary.
We ought not to exclude, as many do, the myriad verses in which Jesus warns in vivid language of the consequences of repeated, un-repented sin. He is not playing games; He is speaking the truth.
To teach as Jesus did is to include warnings of judgment and of Hell.
XI. His anger and zeal – Jesus does not hesitate to express His anger and grief at the hardness and stubbornness of many. One day He said, You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt 17:17) And in Mark’s Gospel we read, And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was furious and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them” (Mk 10: 13-14). Another day, in the synagogue, Jesus expressed anger at their unbelief: After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).
Yes, Jesus memorably cleansed the temple and drove out iniquity there. He engaged in heated debates with the Jewish leaders and with unbelievers. He did not hesitate to call them hypocrites, vipers, liars, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets.
This is another teaching moment that renders what is taught memorable and meaningful. Parents who never react with anger risk misleading their children into making light of or not being serious enough about wrongdoing, disrespect, or stubborn unrepentance.
We must be careful of our anger. We do not have the kind of sovereignty over it that Jesus did; neither are we as able to see into people’s hearts as He was.
But there is a place for anger. Jesus uses it—a lot, actually. Anger signals an important teaching and rebukes a lighthearted response.
XII. His refusal to compromise – There was in Jesus very little compromise about the serious teachings of doctrine or those issues related to our salvation. He said that either we would believe in Him or we would die in our sins (Jn 8). Jesus also said that He was the only way to the Father and that no one would come to the Father except through Him. He declared that no one who set his hand to the plow and looked back was fit for the reign of God. Jesus said that no one who would not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him was worthy of Him. We are told to count the cost and decide now, and we are warned that delay may be deadly.
Much of this is countercultural today, a time of uncertainty in which there is an inappropriate sort of pluralism that thinks that there are many ways to God. Many insist on a “softer” Christianity, in which we can love the world and also love God. Sorry, no can do. A friend of the world is an enemy to God.
Jesus teaches His fundamental truths in an uncompromising way because they are truths for our salvation. Following these truths vaguely or inconsistently will not win the day. Some disciplines need to be followed precisely.
To teach as Jesus did involves insisting that the fundamental doctrines of our faith be accepted fully and wholeheartedly.
XIII. His forgiveness – Forgiveness may not at first seem to be an obvious way of teaching, but consider that teachers often have to accept that students don’t get everything right the first time. Teaching requires a patient persistence as students first acquire skills and then master them.
A good teacher does not compromise the right method or the correct answer; He assists students who fall short rather than immediately excluding them. In an atmosphere where there is no room for error, very little learning can take place.
Forgiveness does not deny that which is correct; it continues to teach what is correct. Forgiveness facilitates an environment in which learning can thrive and perfection can at last be attained.
Jesus, while setting high standards, offers forgiveness, not as a way of denying perfection but as a way to facilitate our advancement by grace and trust.
XIV. His equipping and authorizing of others – Good teachers train new teachers. Jesus trained the Twelve and, by extension, other disciples as well. He led and inspired them. He also prepared them for a day when He would hand on the role of teacher to them. We who would teach need to train our successors and inspire new and greater insights.
Teach me, Lord, by your example, to teach as you taught and to preach as you would have me preach.