In the 20th century, a musical was written about him, calling him, “Superstar”, but “Teacher’ is the title the Gospels most frequently give to Jesus. As teacher, he had one ultimate goal, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This was to be realised and achieved through revealing God as Love, and teaching how to live so that God’s kingdom could come. His message was for all: men and women, rich and poor, fishermen and tax collectors, public sinners and the respected, children and the very outcasts of society.
Teaching the message through words
Jesus involved his listeners by adapting his lesson of Good News to their particular situations – their local geography, their jobs, their daily interests. For example, when near a seaport or a lake where most of the people engaged in fishing for a living, he explained God’s kingdom in terms of fishing. If talking to women, his explanation might focus on making of bread, keeping a clean house, delighting in children. When in the countryside, God’s kingdom would be explained in terms of farming and shepherding, whereas if he spoke with business persons in one of the towns along the trade routes, it would be in terms of investing wisely and making money.
It would appear that Jesus did not have some detailed plan as to where he would go to preach on a particular day or week. He might be said to have “played it by ear” as He responded to the Spirit. However, his basic message was always the same:
Our God is Abba – a compassionate, kind, and loving Father, and the Kingdom of our loving God, where everyone is valued and accepted, is coming soon.
His whole style of teaching captured the attention of his listeners. This is best seen in his use of parables. People were interested in these parables, stories from ordinary life, because the main characters were people just like themselves or people with whom they could easily identify. They listened well, because they wanted to find out how the stories ended.
The parables used figurative language to get their message across. Jesus would say:
What is the Kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it?It is like a mustard seed…It is like the yeast a woman took…It is like a great net cast into the sea…
Jesus intended that these parables not only instruct, but also challenge his audience. In presenting familiar situations, questions came to mind in the listeners, and Jesus wanted people to think out the answers to those questions as they related to their own lives.
“Where did this man get his knowledge?” This was a question that the scribes and Pharisees often asked. Although Jesus had never been trained in the rabbinical schools, he was steeped in the Law and the Scriptures. Impressed and intrigued by his teachings, Pharisees came to him. Some came to learn, as did Nicodemus (John 3); many others “to disconcert him,” as the lawyer who gave Jesus the occasion to tell the Good Samaritan Parable (Luke 10:25-37). In his encounters with scribes and pharisees, Jesus would often, when questioned, turn the question back on his questioners. He urged and challenged them to think more deeply about what they asked. It would seem that Jesus delighted in using sharp contrasts with them, and expressing truths with paradoxes.
Jesus also took advantage of what is called the “teachable moment”. Suppose, for instance, Jesus was at the supper table of a person who was rich, and the guests were maneuvering to get the places of honour, Jesus could take that opportunity to teach about the nature of humility. A poor widow, putting her only coin into the Temple collection, served for instruction on the wondrous generosity of those who give out of their need, in contrast to those who give out of their surplus. The same event also subtly suggested that one not be too ready to judge the actions of others – it is God who sees the heart.
Teaching the message through example
Jesus taught most powerfully through the witness of his life. His prayer life, his living in deep communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit, brought the request from his followers: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” He cured people on the Sabbath to show that the human person is more important than rules, and so he confronted legalism and hypocrisy. He would pay a required tax and render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, but he would also decry the injustices some pharisees imposed on devout Jews. He showed compassion to the sick, mercy to the sinner, and love for the poor. In his final hour, when dying in unbearable agony on the cross, he forgave his executioners.
Within his public ministry, Jesus’ power over the forces of nature, especially, his mighty works of healing and exorcism, should not be viewed as displays of magic performed to win the support of the crowds or to create faith in him. Their significance lies in the fact that when Jesus saw suffering, he healed; when faced with chaos, he restored calm.
His miracles are signs of encouragement that God’s reign was coming about. They are an essential aspect of his ministry, and they are consistent with his words of teaching. The parables, and Jesus’ mighty works, taught and revealed to all who would believe, that his authority was from God.
A good teacher EXPLAINS. A great teacher INSPIRES
Whether teaching thousands or just one, whether in the first century or the twentieth-first, Jesus, the GREAT Teacher drew forth and continues to draw forth a powerful and transforming response to his invitation:
Come to me… follow me … learn of me … the Way the Truth and the Life.
– Sr Columba Byrne, Catechetical Office