Freeing Jesus: Jesus as Teacher a sermon on Matthew 7:22-29
Today, let us honor and give thanks to teachers, for they are doing the Lord’s work. I think Jesus identifies with teachers because he is the ultimate teacher. And God knows it takes everything one has to be good at it, and teachers are not as valued as they should be, especially now with so much entitlement, so many distractions, so many unhinged parents, and so much bureaucracy. Their heroism in figuring things out during COVID has left many of them traumatized, burned out, and feeling underappreciated.
The challenge of teaching.
I saw a video where someone pretends to recruit a math teacher. The recruiter tells the prospective teacher, “Okay, we need you to get children to know math.”
The prospective teacher says, “Wow. Do they want to know math?”
“No, they don’t wanna know it. You need to make them know math against their will. While they’re exploding sexually, and beating the crap out of each other.”
“Who are these children?”
“Just anybody who lives near the building.”
“How much do I get paid?”
“About $10 every four years.”
“What if I get really good at it, what happens?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.”
Fade to black.
Something amazing happens.
Well, that isn’t entirely fair. Some things do happen. First, we see you, recognize you, and want to thank you. Can we get the teachers and professors here to raise their hands?
The other thing that happens is that you shape a generation; you have a piece in shaping people, helping them succeed in academics and, more importantly, at being good human beings. You never know how you will light a spark that changes a life. The teachers who are in it for having that effect last–like Mr. B. the most famous man on 2nd Street.
If you think back on your life, how many of you had teachers who left their mark on you and made you better? How did they do that for you? How did they pay attention, inspire, and light something inside of you?
Today, we are launching our new sermon series, Freeing Jesus, based on Diana Butler Bass’s book. Pastor Susie led a study of the book last year. We will look with fresh eyes at how Jesus ministered to free him from overly-simplistic understandings of what he was about so that we might have a deeper spiritual relationship with him and find the spiritual connection that can help us become better people.
Like a rock.
In our scripture today, Jesus says following his teachings is like building your house on a foundation of solid rock; it’s reliable and won’t let you down. I believe that Jesus’ teachings are enough to make me want to follow his way. You can toss out all of the miracles and supernatural stuff, even if you don’t buy into the virgin birth or resurrection, and just follow his teachings and find yourself living a rich and purposeful life. Solid as a rock. If you’re dubious about this faith stuff, don’t discard it all. Start by trying to apply Jesus’ teachings to your life and see its effect. What can it hurt?
Jesus was a teacher first.
Diana Butler Bass points out that sixty of the ninety times someone personally addresses Jesus, they call him some form of teacher or rabbi. Sometimes we get so caught up in the miracles and titles like “savior” and “Son of God,” that we bypass what he had to say about a life well-lived, a moral life, a life connected to God and others in meaningful ways.
The content of Jesus’ teachings.
First, we look at the content of Jesus’ teaching.
Although we often equate religion with moralistic rules, Jesus wasn’t big on giving long lists of rules to follow. There are only a few, that provide the structure for everything else. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Do not worry. Do not judge. Pray always.
The kin-dom of God.
His most frequent subject was the kin-dom of God, which he envisioned not so much as a place we go when we die but a quality of life, we can achieve in this world by treating each other in the ways God had envisioned all along. It requires forgiveness, and an end to retaliation. It assumes being kindness, truth-telling, integrity, helping each other. He taught values of service, living with gratitude for what you already have, and standing up for people by challenging systems that keep people poor or marginalized.
Mercy and forgiveness.
He taught us to pray and, in that prayer, ask for forgiveness and tied it to our forgiving others. Forgive us to the extent we forgive those who sin against us.
Re-interpreting the tradition.
As a 1st century Jew, he was firmly rooted in that tradition and found new ways of expressing what had been handed down to him through the centuries. There are very few concepts he taught that weren’t already part of the Jewish tradition. There are few times when he went out of his way to counter some of the traditional teachings, such as when he said, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you repay no one evil for evil. Love your enemy. Do good to those who persecute you.”
People over religious rituals.
He was quick to shun ceremonial rituals when they ostracized people. He emphasized the parts of the tradition that highlighted God’s merciful and compassionate nature. He wasn’t into picturing God as an angry dude in the sky, but a loving spiritual presence who embraces everyone–especially sinners and marginalized people. The only times he suggested God would punish anyone was to punish judgy people who belittled others.
Second, we look at Jesus’ teaching methodology. It seems he adapted his teaching according to his audience. He could go toe-to-toe with the best scholars in a debate format, but most of the time, he was with very common people and talked about things that they knew: fish, farming, soil, seeds, weeds, and unjust landlords. Sometimes, he preached like the sermon on the Mount, where he gave a series of instructions. More frequently, he asked questions, inviting people to imagine and think about things rather than explain everything. Fun fact: the gospels record Jesus asking 307 questions.
His most effective method was storytelling, often in parables designed to shock people into new ways of thinking, opening up their imaginations. He pictured God as a shepherd who leaves the flock to search for a single lost sheep and a woman who loses a coin and gets on her hands and knees and searches for it through the night.
But not everyone liked his style. He came from a peasant family and didn’t have the formal training most interpreters of the law had, so he was constantly under attack. But he showed that one’s experience and internal wisdom are great teachers. The text says he taught with authority, not like the scribes of the day. He had this stuff from within, not regurgitating what someone else said about God.
Evaluation if Jesus were a professor today.
I wonder how it would go today. Would people receive him any better? There was a meme a few years ago about what college students would say about Jesus on end-of-year evaluations if he were their professor.
“Inconsistent attendance policy. Said we had to be in class by 9:00 a.m. every day. Over half the class showed up late or didn’t attend until the last meeting, but we all got the same participation grade.”
“He’s nice enough, I guess, but he doesn’t vet his TAs: they all provide completely different, conflicting lecture notes. (TIP: Try to get in Luke’s section.)”
“By week one, I was already tired of his anti-rich, pro-Samaritan bull. I wanted to take a course in Christianity, not liberalism.”
“Wears sandals too much. No one wants to see your dusty feet.”
“Kind of absent-minded. My name’s Simon, and he’s called me ‘Peter’ for the entire semester.”
“Doesn’t respect students’ time. A line of us had been waiting outside his office for over an hour. Finally, he showed up, said, ‘And the last shall be first,’ and started seeing us in reverse order. Made me late for work-study.”
“Tells too many stories. Easy to get him off track during lectures.”
“Plays favorites. (Sorry, we can’t all be John ‘The Beloved.’)”
“I reached out because I needed an extremely important, last-minute letter of rec for a summer internship. He didn’t get back to me for three days. Do your job.”
“Inaccessible. He told me he’d be in his office; I walked all the way there, and the door was open, and he was gone.”
“He straight-up ghosted us. He took on the entire class as his advisees, got us all excited to work with him, then immediately left for a 2,000+ year sabbatical. Thanks for nothing.”
“A complete joke. Only got the job because his dad is important.”
More than content.
Great teachers do more than download information to us, they grab our attention, get us to think in new ways, open up worlds we never knew existed. Their passion for a subject makes us want to learn more. Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t explain everything. He wanted us to think, do what he did, and reinterpret the tradition in ways that make sense. He wasn’t about giving rules but a way of transformation.
Some of the most outstanding teachers teach not so much by their words but by their example. Jesus did that. He didn’t just talk about being of service. He got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples. He didn’t just talk about sacrifice; he sacrificed himself for a cause. He spent time with the sick, the people at the margins.
Jesus didn’t teach to the test but to develop us and give us the tools we need. It is a good way to live. Like a house on a rock. Better than philosophies that teach just be good, all will go well, and do to others as they have done to you. Be the alpha in every situation. Fear the outsider. Live with suspicion of others. Let your anger burn hot. Insist on your way. Jesus taught us a way of transformation that lifts us above those impulses to show a better way. Like a rock. Amen.