by Fr. Jack McArdle
We are all familiar with movies about a new discovery, and about the thinking and theses of the person who made the discovery. Such people move us all forward, even if only a little. Life is a journey. If I am not moving forward, then, be sure, I am moving backward. Life is dynamic, it is never static. "Lord, I confess that my life is not all that it ought to be, but I thank you that it's a bit better than it used to be!", is one of my favourite prayers. It is a good and necessary feeling to know that I am moving forward. The teacher is always in the business of discovery, of revelation, of moving forward. The teacher who is no longer learning something new, is no longer capable of being a good teacher. In the most impoverished countries in the world, the immediate priority is to feed them, but the long-term goal must be to educate them. 'If you want to feed me today, give me rice. If you want to feed me for the rest of my life, teach me how to grow rice.'
The teacher is one who brings another from the known to the unknown. In other words, what is known is the starting point. Jesus was a brilliant teacher. He began with sheep, birds of the air, fish, nets, shepherds, etc. He could point to these as he spoke. His starting point was the very core of their lives and their experience. Genuine teaching is an expression of love, which involves meeting and accepting the other where that person is. Because I myself spent most of my years in the teaching profession, I can claim to know a little about the subject! In the early days of our training, there was a general acceptance that a highly intelligent person would not make a good teacher, except, of course, with highly intelligent pupils! I'm just stating what was our considered opinion at that time, rather than asserting a fact! The implication was, that to effectively impart information, it was necessary to look through the eyes of the learners, and endeavour to see the material from their perspective as well. Proper teaching requires constant empathy, which provides the batteries for the necessary patience! Personally, I would rephrase the comment from our training college days to read: Highly intellectual people do not make good teachers. There is a vast difference between being intellectual, and being intelligent. The intellectual has a tendency to complicate, over-state, and verbalise, while, the really intelligent should be able to state the most profound truths in simple everyday language. Kirkegard said to Hegel, "We philosophers are extraordinary geniuses. By the time we have put words on a concept, you can be sure that most people won't have an idea what we're talking about. I met another philosopher in Copenhagen last week, and when I asked him for directions to a street not far away, he gave me a map of Europe!"
Let's get back to Jesus, before I convict myself as an intellectual!. It is absolutely extraordinary the emphasis Jesus placed on teaching. In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that 'Jesus came to do and to teach'! That's an interesting insight, because it says that he was prepared to do the thing himself first, before teaching others what to do. A simple and obvious example of that is when he washed the feet of the disciples, and then asked them to do as he did. The whole concept of Incarnation is an overwhelming declaration of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. All Jesus' teaching is spoken against that background. 'In this is love', says John, 'not that we love God, but that God first loved us. Little children, let us love one another, because God first loved us'. That is God's greatest teaching, and Jesus came in person to teach it. As I said in chapter one, he is God's Word of Love. 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so those who believe in him may have everlasting life'.
I am always fascinated by the importance Jesus gave to teaching in his ministry. The crowds had been with him for a long time, they had come from afar, they were tired and hungry. 'Jesus had pity on them and he sat down and began to teach them'. That would be ridiculous in any other context! It is worth noting that it is the apostles, and no one else, not Jesus not the crowd, who drew attention to the fact that the crowds were hungry and tired. Jesus knew their real hunger, and he had earlier declared 'not on bread alone do we live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'. In this, as in many other ways, Jesus is a sign of contradiction. It is is said that the greatest hunger on earth is not for bodily food, and I believe that to be true. If food could make us happy, then every well-fed person should be happy! The greatest teaching of Jesus was his own life. 'Learn from me' he tells us. His every word and action teaches us something. He has been studied, discussed, and written about for centuries, and, yet here is one more book! Not the final and definitive word, I hasten to add!
There are a few of what we might now call lengthy discourses (long sermons?!) in the gospels. The Sermon on the Mount is a classic, and it contains a wealth of teaching on the mind-set and thinking of God. 'I never say anything unless the Father tells me to. They who hear me hear the Father'. The Eight Beatitudes present a whole way of living, of thinking, and of being. As a teacher, they give me a simple, direct, and definite set of teachings. I can begin with the conviction that, even if they don't practise them, my listeners can identify with the ideas of gentleness, meekness, detachment, honesty, and peace making. I don't need to use those actual words, of course, because it is in the concept I am interested. We all know gentle folk, who have something very special about them. We may not be able to put it into words, but, for example, in the case of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, we cannot deny the strength and power of their meekness and gentleness. Every nation has at least one person who stands out as being a powerful advocate for peace, even when such a stance is very unpopular. We are all aware of prisoners of conscience, and of the fate of those who took a stand on the side of justice and fair play. What I'm saying here is that the material for writing the Eight Beatitudes can be found in most of our morning newspapers! Genius is the ability to discern the obvious! The ways of God are not ours, and we have to become open to seeing things His way, before we come to see anything. I am every person in the gospels. I have my own deafness, my own dumbness, my own blindness. The gospels give us a very clear insight into the mind of God, and the teachings of the gospels give us a very definite blueprint for living.
Teaching is a two-way process between teacher and pupil. If only one side is functioning, there is nothing happening. The greatest teacher in the world cannot enforce, and would never enforce knowledge on an unwilling listener. Part of being the good teacher is to awaken in the pupil a desire and willingness to learn, even to the point of having a real love of learning. It is significant that the apostles asked 'Lord, teach us to pray'. They had watched Jesus multiplying the loaves, healing the lepers, raising the dead, and yet, it must have been how he prayed that impressed them most. Jesus often spoke of the inner hunger and thirst that we all have, and he invites all to come to him. It is very easy to imagine Jesus standing on the side of a mountain, with large crowds around him as he spoke. They had come to listen to his teaching. At other times he pulled out from the shore in a boat, and taught them from there. His classroom was the world; it was any place where people were gathered. And, frequently, this was the temple.
From my own experience in the classroom, I am very familiar with the idea of there being a certain identifiable spirit in a school, or among a particular class, be that good or bad. To sit at the feet of Jesus must have been a very powerful and power-filled experience. His words were alive and life giving. Theos is the Greek for God, from which we have the word enthusiasm, which literally means to have God within. Jesus must have been a wonderful enthusiastic teacher. We have all come across someone(a rarity!) of whom it is said 'I could sit and listen to her/him all day'. Their enthusiasm is magnetic. Generally this comes from a deep-rooted belief in the truths they are presenting. The first requirement for being a good homilist is that the speaker believes the message being presented! It is obvious that Jesus was a man with a mission. He was on fire with zeal for that mission, 'and how can I be at peace until it is accomplished'. His very meat, that which kept him alive, was to do the work of Him who sent him. He was sent with a simple message, and he was to speak it in our language. By doing, and following that by teaching, it became what is known in educational language as 'an object lesson.' By beginning where they were at, and pointing to things they owned, and situations they knew, he could bring them on a journey of discovery and revelation. I can readily understand the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Our ability to be alert, to be in touch, to be aware of what is happening around us is directly effected by how things are within us. At the beginning, they were despondent and depressed. Jesus zeroed in on where they were, and why they were so. He then proceeded to lead them from there into a whole new discovery. Eventually 'their eyes were opened', and they remarked to each other 'were not our hearts burning within us when he spoke, and when he explained the scriptures to us.'
There is a progression in such teaching. It begins with information. This is the basis. It has to do with teaching the core message of the gospel. It never ceases to amaze me how a generation like my own grew up with definitions, commandments, precepts, laws, rules, etc., and with very little awareness of the centrality of the gospel. In our Religion classes we had copies of catechisms, Hart's Christian Doctrine, Sheehan's Apologetics, etc., etc., everything except a copy of the gospels! If I may be so presumptuous, I think I know why that was so. Religion and Church had taken over the running of things many years earlier, and very soon the Holy Spirit was redundant. When I was growing up, He was even called the Holy Ghost, which implied a very insubstantive reality. He was called in on the job once in a life-time, at Confirmation, but was then removed to the back-burner, unless needed at a later date for ordination, or for consecration. It is very significant to see how Jesus' teaching began. He was anointed by the Holy Spirit, he was led by the Spirit into the Temple, and he spoke these famous words 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim liberty to captives, and to give new sight to the blind; to free the oppressed, and announce the Lord's year of mercy.' We speak here of the very core of evangelising. The Father sends Jesus, and the Spirit does the anointing, and opens up the heart pores of both speaker and the listener. Once again, I say that only God can do God things. Jesus was God, of course, but his 100% living was within the perimeters of his humanity. As Paul says 'Although he was of God, he did not claim equality with God, but lowered himself, and became obedient, even to the death on the cross.' In other words, Jesus waited for the Spirit to anoint him before going forth to preach and to teach. When we consider this truth, it must appear as blasphemous insanity that anyone should dare to go forth to speak God's word, without being anointed with God's Spirit. Words, in themselves, are but a collection of letters of the alphabet. They can have many meanings, depending on the spirit with which they are spoken. Sometimes I meet another who asks me how I am, and I don't really answer the question! Another could ask me the very same question, and I might spend several minutes by way of reply. The exact same words, spoken with a totally different spirit. Prayer is like that. I can, of course, say prayers, just as I could teach a parrot to say a prayer. I cannot, however, pray, unless the Spirit of God is in my words. On a few occasions, when Jesus prayed out loud, we are told that 'he was filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, as he exclaimed....'.
Enthusiasm is contagious. It is a wonderful experience to sit in front of a teacher who is fully enthusiastic about the value and importance of what is being taught. Just as it is accepted that 'the noisy teacher makes a noisy class', so is it that the teacher who is bored, very quickly becomes boring. Jesus spoke of himself 'being on fire with a mission'. He said that he came 'to set fire to the earth.' Without wishing to be banal, might I suggest that Jesus saw himself as a salesman, with a product that everybody vitally needed, and he was fired up to awaken them to an awareness of that fact. I like walking. I love walking in the country, along the base of mountains, or along the seashore. It is at times like that that I am often struck with how asleep we all can be. The Church's liturgies, leading up to Christmas, call on us to 'wake up from your slumber, arise from your sleep'. It is amazing how much of any one of us can be lying dormant. It must be one of life's greatest tragedies, when someone drifts through life, not fully awake, and not too involved in what's going on. They take everything for granted. It is said that if you want to really appreciate something, have it stolen, get it back, and it then becomes very special. I myself can think of teachers I had in school, and it was years later before I realised just how good they were. Artists fascinate me. I have a very good friend who is a painter. I love walking in the woods, or by the sea with her, because she gets so excited about the beauty, the colours, the textures, and the layers and layers of life that I myself would never see. I remember sharing space with a poet a few years ago. I was working in a nursing home, and he was convalescing there. After breakfast he went for a stroll along by the harbour. I will never forget the expression on his face, and the spark in his eye as he returned, filled with awe and delight at what he had seen that morning. Jesus speaks on several occasions about the need to stay awake. He speaks of being alert, of being ready, of watching (as we pray). He tells stories of foolish virgins, and of workmen who were not ready when the bridegroom or the king arrived. I sometimes think of this alertness being the equivalent of wearing an antenna on our heads. God is always present, is always speaking, is always involved. There is a television set quite close to where I am writing, but the screen is blank. There is a radio on the window right beside me. I like silence when I write, so both mediums of communication are switched off. This means that all those people out there, acting in front of cameras, or speaking into microphones, are wasting their sweetness on the desert air, as far as I am concerned! Communication has to be at least two-way, or it is no-way.
Jesus taught with authority. This literally means that he spoke the word, the message, of the author. He never said anything unless the Father told him to do so. His listeners remarked that they had never heard anyone speak with such authority. He declares that he knows what he is speaking about. In John's gospel, he speaks at great length about the Bread of Life. Some of his listeners thought that this teaching was too difficult to accept, so 'they walked away, and walked no more with him.' He didn't run after them, he didn't offer to change or water-down the message. He had spoken his truth, and he left them with the straight choice of accepting or rejecting it. Jesus came 'for the fall as well as for the resurrection of many'. There is nothing automatic about it. If his listeners were not free to walk away, they were not free to stay. Later on, he would tell his apostles to speak their truth, and, if that was not accepted, they should shake the dust of that town from their feet, and move on elsewhere. Teaching is a service, and it must never become tyrannical, nor should it become brain-washing. The response from the listener must be voluntary, and personal. It is only when the information is freely accepted that it can lead to formation, and, eventually, to transformation. The gospel message is invitation, with a very definite R.S.V.P. attached. 'Let your yes be yes, and your no be no....You are either for me, or against nt me.' Not to respond is itself a response. The opposite to love is not hatred, but indifference.
The teaching process has two dimensions to it, i.e., the message and the response. By any standards, Jesus was the most brilliant and gifted teacher who ever spoke. There is not one maybe or one might in the whole gospel. His message is crystal clear, and he thanks the Father for presenting, through him, a message that is so simple that the intellectual and worldly-wise would fail to recognise its profondity, and dismiss it as the demented ramblings of a fool and a dreamer. But, as with the child who clearly saw that 'the king has no clothes', the message makes total sense, and is not at all complicated to those who have the heart of a child, whose mind and heart are not yet complicated. God has no grandchildren. In God's eyes, each of us is a simple child, despite the attempts of the world, of age, and of life to complicate that simple truth. The message was first spoken through the very appearance of a child among us at Bethlehem. It began in total simplicity, and it continued that way. Through his very presence, as well as through every word he spoke, and every thing he did, Jesus was revealing the Father, and that is the most profound message ever spoken to the human heart.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.