JESUS THE TEACHER
All three of the Lent talks are based on Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The simple reason for this to follow up on Talking Jesus, in which we used Mark’s gospel and we gave Mark’s Gospel books. So it seemed to be sensible that if I was doing talks soon afterTalking Jesus that I would pick up on Mark’s gospel and follow it through. The title ‘Hunting for Jesus’ comes from one translation of Mark 1:36 ‘And Simon and his companions hunted for him.’ Jesus had left Capernaum early in the morning and they hunted for him. I was struck reading that, the idea of hunting for Jesus. When I first mentioned it to my colleague, the Bishop of Jarrow, he said ‘Not with guns I hope.’ But the idea is that we are on a search, we are on a hunt to look at what do we discover about Jesus in Mark’s Gospels specifically.
JESUS THE TEACHER
So today the first one is thinking particularly about listening to Jesus the teacher. One of the things that is very obvious when you go through Mark’s gospel is that teaching is the absolute heart of what happened in Jesus’ public ministry. There are going to be lots of bible verses and I’m not going to read every verse this evening. These will be available on the diocesan website if you want to follow up later. But simply the point about these is in every single one of these references Jesus is called teacher. He’s called teacher not by himself but by his disciples, by his opponents, by others and on one occasion he is called ‘good teacher’. That’s the rich young ruler, in chapter 10, but it is the common title used of Jesus by others. He refers to himself as Son of Man, more often than not. So simply to begin by noting how prominently people around Jesus saw him as teacher.
TEACHING AT THE TOP
But that’s added to in Mark’s gospel by the way he makes it quite clear that teaching and proclaiming are Jesus’ top priority. So here are a couple of them. Right at the beginning of the gospel after Jesus appears from his baptism and temptation in the wilderness he begins his ministry, chapter 1:14 ’Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ His ministry begins absolutely as a proclaiming, a teaching ministry. Simon and those who are with him searched for him, hunted for him and they found him and said to him, ‘everyone is looking for you’. And he said to them ‘let us go onto the next town that I may preach there also for that is why I came out.’ And he went throughout all Galilee preaching in their synagogues. In 6:30-34, this particular piece is the story of the feeding of the 5000 but it begins this way, ‘The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ So what does Jesus do when he sees the crowd? He has compassion on them, he began to teach them many things. Jesus’ compassionate response to the crowds chasing around the lake to see him was to teach them and of course he taught at some length. You’ll be glad to know this evening’s talk is not going to be anything like the length of this particular teaching session because we know from other gospels that it went on for 3 days. The other verses emphasise that all the way through, that teaching and proclaiming are the priority for Jesus in his ministry and that continues right through to the very end of his ministrY. In his last days in Jerusalem, when he knows that he’s about to be arrested and crucified, even after his arrest, this is what he says to those who have arrested him, 14:49, ‘Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. ’ That’s what he had spent the whole of his 3 years doing, teaching. And he made that too a priority for his disciples when he sent them out. They go out teaching and healing. Next week we are going to think particularly about Jesus’ healing ministry. But they go hand in hand. He appointed 12 whom he also named apostles so they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. When they go out that’s exactly what they do, they teach and they heal. So teaching was at the top of Jesus’ own priorities.
TEACHING WAS THE TOPS
In terms of how that came across, his teaching was the tops. So right from the very outset the reaction to Jesus is partly around his teaching. This is right at the beginning of 1:21-22 ‘They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.’ There is then a healing story which we will look at next week, but at the end of that healing, they say ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’ There was something about the authoritative way that Jesus taught and it’s emphasised time and again in Mark’s gospel. There is an authority about Jesus the teacher which astonished people. They couldn’t get their heads around the type and the style, and everything about Jesus the teacher and how his teaching came across. And so authoritative was it and so astonishing was it that people flocked to listen, as I said, sometimes for days on end. Goodness knows what their smallholding looked like three days later. Or their flocks that they’d left, or the business that they’d left or the fishing, as they hadn’t gone fishing for a few days and so on and so forth. But people just wanted to be near him and listen to him and couldn’t get enough of this teacher, in a way which was completely different and distinctive from anything else that was going on at the time.
I can’t remember which author I nicked the title ‘Topsy-Turvy Teaching’ from but I don’t claim it for myself. The point is the thrust of Jesus teaching is all about the Kingdom of God, the reign of God. My favourite, simple definition of what do we mean when we talk about the Kingdom of God is ‘God’s way of doing things.’ It’s God’s way of dealing with things that happen and how things are done in the Kingdom of God at the heart of Jesus’ teaching all the way through the three years that it lasted.
So it was about changing our minds about God. That’s when he first appears from the wilderness and says repent, you’ve got to change your mind. Repentance is not primarily about being sorry for sins, it is primarily a change of mind. It is a change of the way we think about God about ourselves and about the world. Jesus was encouraging people to change the way they think about God and constantly actually his teaching is Topsy-Turvy. He’s trying to turn over people’s thinking about God and God’s ways.
One of the examples of that is how he handles the whole issue of the Sabbath. Sabbath had become a major issue for the Jews and particularly the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the high priest and so on, who laid huge burdens on the people, about what they could and could not do on the Sabbath. The controversy occurs partly because of Jesus’ behaviour on the Sabbath, because he heals people on the Sabbath and that raises a serious question. Then at the end of Chap 2 ‘One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath. And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?’ because plucking heads of grain was deemed to be work. And he said to them, ‘He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’. He’s turning the tables over thinking about the Sabbath. He’s not saying Sabbath is unimportant. He’s not saying Sabbath is not given as a commandment of God. What he is saying, in fact what he’s reminding, is that Sabbath is a gift. Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. It’s a gift from God to humanity for our good and our wellbeing. What have you done, you’ve turned it on the other way round and said Sabbath controls us we do not control Sabbath. He turns it on its head. It’s Topsy-Turvy. Except he’s putting it the right way back up again.
He does the same around greatness and thinking around what is true greatness. True greatness he says in those verses is service. Chapter 9 and 10 of Mark have been described by a Roman Catholic theologian named Joseph Grassi as the Children’s gospel. And the reason for that is that Mark puts all the stories that involve children; except for one, which is the healing of Jairus’ daughter, everything else to do with children is squeezed into chapters 9 and chapter 10. Also there’s lots of stuff in chapter 9 and chapter 10 about greatness. So 9:33 ‘Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ Well the disciples had been put squarely in their place on that occasion. Just over into 10:13 we have ‘People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.’ A slightly less polite translation was when Jesus saw it he was flaming furious, that’s how strong the word is in the Greek. ‘But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ In the way that Mark tells it, a couple of paragraphs back, Jesus has taken a child and said you can learn a great deal of lessons from this child, so what do they do? Don’t let them near Jesus.
Then we have the story of the rich young ruler who makes the point ‘teacher all these I have kept from my youth’ it’s a phrase that it is used by the rich young ruler that only Mark puts in his gospel.
And then Jesus talks about his forthcoming death and then what happens? James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking.
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Jesus turns true greatness on its head. It’s all about service. It’s all about going the way of the cross.
Rooted in the Scriptures
The other thing, if you think back to the Sabbath piece, is Jesus quotes an Old Testament story. And all the way through Mark’s gospel either built into the record of Jesus teaching or in Mark’s comment, Mark makes it absolutely clear that Jesus’ teaching is utterly rooted in what were his scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. That vast amounts of his teaching were from his reflection on the scriptures that he’d learnt from childhood. That he’d memorised that he’d thought on and prayed over and he uses those scriptures and he teaches from those scriptures all the time. That’s not Topsy-Turvy that’s where his authority lay.
Parables – Mind Bombs
Which brings us to the parables, because the parables are one of the primary ways in which Jesus chooses to teach. And again I make no claims for this title. One of the commentators says that parables are like ‘mind bombs’. The image is you hear a story from Jesus and it goes into your mind and the more you think about it the more it explodes inside and gets you thinking differently and remember Jesus is recorded several times ending his parable by saying ‘he who has an ear let him hear’. We have to work at the parables. He tells a story and he doesn’t give you all the explanation. He leaves it working away in our minds and exploding inside us so that we begin to think differently about God and God’s kingdom. The parables are all stories about how God’s kingdom works out, what it looks like, how it functions in the world. The core of the way Mark has done it, is that he records four of the parables in one chapter. And then we have a couple of others during the last week of his ministry. Matthew does something not dissimilar, he puts lots of the parables in one chapter, chapter 13. So it’s quite clear the gospel writers have gathered together these stories. Almost certainly Jesus told these parables time and again during his ministry. It’s not likely that he only ever told the parables once. Ask any preacher whether they have never ever repeated a story at all ever again. It’s a teaching technique, particularly if you are in an oral culture where you’ve got nothing written down and hardly anybody can read. One of the best ways of getting your story over is to tell the story again, so that people remember it. Which is why it then becomes easy for it to be written down in due course, because it has been told and told and people have remembered it. So Jesus would have repeated these and so perhaps if you’d heard it once on one hill of Galilee you then hear the parable again on another hill six months later and then you might be down in Jerusalem sometime and you hear Jesus tell it again. And it constantly works its way in your mind and it makes us think again.
It is my contention that whilst this kind of talk is trying to explain actually often with scripture, we are too quick, us preachers, at trying to tell everybody exactly what it means, rather than allowing scripture to do as Jesus operated and say here you go now let it fizzle and work away in your brain and work away in your gut and let’s see what God does with his words and what happens inside us. The parables are mind bombs.
Stuff of Life
The next thing to say about Jesus teaching, is that it really was about the stuff of life. So if you go back just look at the Parable of Sower. Of course people understood quite a lot of that because they were all into sowing and reaping because they were an agricultural economy. I think it is not at all unrealistic to think that Jesus, as he was teaching, was pointing at somebody on the other hill who was doing it, saying ‘look at that sower over there.’ They all understood about lamps because that was the only light they had and they know how stupid it was to light something and stick it under a bowl because it wasn’t going to function the way it was meant to. They understood what it was to be a tenant on a farm because it was stuff they understood, as it was the stuff of ordinary life. But then think about some of the other content of Jesus teaching. It is about the stuff of life.
Food – He talks about fasting and food, satisfying hunger and virtually half of chapter 7 is all about clean and unclean foods and indeed Mark makes the comment, ‘Jesus makes all food clean’. So he radically reshapes the understanding about food. But it’s all about food and how we handle food. When it’s good not to eat and when it’s not. Why do we treat food as clean and unclean and so on?
Money – It’s about money. People in churches, and it’s probably true outside churches, don’t necessarily like talking about money too much. But actually Jesus talked about money rather a lot. So not to talk about money is to be unfaithful to Jesus the teacher. Next time you have a sermon on money just remember that. Jesus the teacher used money a lot. He used it as an example but he also taught about it. He taught about money being an idol; that’s with the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler’s problem was he couldn’t let go of his money. It had become his idol, it had become his god and Jesus was trying to say to him you’ve got to think differently where your trust lies. Does it lie with money or does it lie with God. He had conversations about taxation. And he holds up as an extraordinary example the widow Mark 12:41 ‘He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
Now that’s not good news for the fundraising campaigns that promise that if you give over a certain amount you will get a plaque on the wall celebrating it. Or you will get cited in the next copy of the next annual reports saying what a wonderful person you are because you gave this large sum of money. Because no charity or church ever puts the name of the person who only puts the small amount in because we tend to classify our giving by the amounts in actual terms. Whereas what Jesus is saying is classify it on the basis on how much is left not how much has been given. Remember what he said ‘she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ This is a widow who is down to her last coins and decides that the right thing to do with the last coins is to give them to God and the temple and the worship. What is she going to do now? She’s going to go away and she has nothing with which to buy any water any food she’s going to go away and die from hunger. But she has given everything. She’s the one who’s commended. That’s Topsy-Turvy thinking about money. But it’s the stuff of life.
Family – Then he talks quite a lot about family and family loyalties. It’s not easy reading because Jesus of course had left his family and when his family come searching for him this is what happens. ‘He went home and the crowd gathered again so they could not even eat and when his family heard it they went out to seize him for they were saying he’s out of his mind.’ That’s how Jesus family thought of him early on in his ministry ‘he’s out of his mind’. And a little bit later in the same chapter ‘and his mother and his brothers came and standing outside they sent to him and called him and a crowd was sitting around him and they said to him your mother and your brothers are outside seeking you and he answered them ‘who are my mother and my brothers? And looking around at those sitting around him he said ‘here are my brothers, whoever does the will of God he is my brother and sister and mother. I wonder how Mary felt at that particular point? I wonder how his brothers felt at that particular point? It doesn’t mean he abandoned his family because we know that at the very end Mary is there and he makes sure she’s cared for by John and so on but he is saying you’ve got to think family differently and in chapter 10 you have this piece where Peter and the disciples make this point about how they left their family behind in order to follow Jesus. And it’s about the priority of the kingdom. Jesus teaches about divorce and he teaches about marriage. It’s all the stuff of life. It’s not disconnected from everyday living. Which leads us to reflecting that in his teaching also he focuses on the son of man who suffers, dies and rises again.
But really that’s just an advert for Talk 3, because that’s really the focus of the third talk. But threaded all the way through his teaching is that he’s always looking ahead to the cross.
ARE WE LISTENING?
So to summarise, the question is if Jesus is the Teacher, the teacher above all teachers, the most astonishing teacher, the most authoritative teacher, the one who calls us to think differently about God and God’s way of doing things, are we listening? The quick and easy answer always for those of us who claim to be his followers is ‘Of course we are’. We read the scriptures, we listen to them being read in our worship services, we listen to sermons, we pray. But my greatest danger is, like the Pharisees, to think I have understood it all rightly, and I’ve got it all sewn up, so that I’m able as a religious leader to say ‘This is the way we should do it’ and ‘This is the way you should do it’ and not to fall into the trap of the Pharisees and start laying burdens on everybody that I don’t keep myself. The most difficult thing I have with reading the gospels is the Pharisees, because I have to recognise they are the people I’m most likely to be like. Whilst what I want to be like is Jesus. When we stop and actually think about Jesus the teacher and reflect on the story it is astonishing. Here was someone who was born in an obscure place in an occupied territory at an obscure time who spent 30 years of his life living in Nazareth learning to be a carpenter, operating as a carpenter, which meant he made things out of wood but also that he would have been involved in housebuilding and the other types of building working alongside in the community. Probably travelling out from Nazareth to some of the other communities around but that’s what he did for 30 years. He went to the synagogue week in week out from childhood and he listened to the scriptures being read and obviously absorbed them and memorised them and reflected on them. Then suddenly at the age of 30 he leaves home and goes down to the River Jordan to where his cousin, John the Baptist, who appears to be something of a freak really, has been preaching and teaching and saying that the Messiah is coming and calling people to repentance and baptism. He submits to that baptism and is then driven out into the wilderness and spends 40 days in the wilderness and when he returns he starts teaching and preaching the kingdom of God. He has no learning in the formal sense. He’s had no formal training whatsoever and within weeks people are flocking to hear him. Within weeks they are talking about him as astonishing and astounding. They are utterly amazed at the things he is doing and the things that he is saying and the teaching that he’s offering and it lasts for 3 years. At the end of those 3 years his opponents appear to have won. And that was at a time when no one was writing it down, no one was recording it or filming it to display across the world. But a core number of people become his followers. And here we are 2000 years later still reflecting on what an astonishing teacher he was and how amazing his teaching was and billions of people across the earth are looking at this person. It is an astonishing story. Which is why we have to get to the third one because, it doesn’t, for me make sense without the cross and the resurrection. But just to focus on Jesus the teacher, people, all kinds of people still want to look at Jesus of Nazareth teaching; they still find it inspiring. I meet people who are atheists who say to me, I still love the things that Jesus said. Don’t get me on the all the other stuff about miracles and so on but what an amazing teacher. I then often want to say to them, have you really listened carefully. Because that’s what we have to do for Jesus was The Teacher of all teachers for all time.
The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham