Isaiah 50:4-9a Psalm 116:1-8 James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38
It has been fun to follow the first-week-of-school Facebook posts. The photos of youngsters heading off to day one of grade one, and their assessments of their first day trigger a flood of memories. The mixture of excitement and dread that accompanies the plunge into new educational adventures and social negotiations are not easily forgotten. What will a new teacher be like? How will the transition to a new school go? Am I ready for the independence a university environment affords?
It is probably not accidental that all three of today’s scripture readings mention teachers or teaching. The lectionary is often mindful of universalities that intersect with the church year. In Isaiah, the voice of the servant in the Third Servant Song announces: “Yahweh has granted me the tongue of a teacher, able to console the weary with a sustaining word.” The Letter of James cautions: “Not many of you should become teachers,… for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” And in the gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples that those who desired to be his followers would face suffering.
I think one of the reasons so many were drawn to Jesus was because he was one of those teachers—‘rabbi’ means ‘teacher’ after all—who helped people find meaningful answers to the deep problems they faced in their daily lives. Isn’t that what teachers do? Help people to figure out how to think about an enormous range of challenges or problems—communicating clearly with language; analyzing how the universe works using mathematics and science; what makes for effective and beautiful artistic expression; or how human societies behave. Teachers are responsible for passing along the wisdom of the ages while, at the same time, considering innovations that may steer the future in new directions.
Sigmund Freud popularized the following quotation, without ever identifying its source. It goes like this: “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” It is a powerful observation, because it reminds us that the future is not necessarily condemned to repeat the past. “We’ve always done it this way before,” was not carved on the stone tablets delivered to Moses on Mt Sinai. Today’s decisions and practices can steer the future in a completely different direction than the decisions and practices that brought us to where we are. We can be taught how to create a future that is not a mere extrapolation of our past.
Even though Jesus was formed in the Jewish spiritual traditions, traditions that included a well-established strand of retributive, eye-for-an-eye justice, he knew that forgiveness was the most effective way to abort the never ending cycles of score settling. Huston Smith, the great scholar of world religions, asserts that this teaching of Jesus is the essential contribution of Christianity. Christ, the Teacher, spoke from the heart of God, imparting wisdom that had the power to change human history.
The Rule of St Benedict has been around for nearly 1,500 years. The first line of the prologue of the rule encourages one to: “Listen carefully,… to the teacher’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” “Attend to them with the ear of your heart.” The teacher in this instance is Benedict, who is sharing his guidelines for Christians living and working in community, but the exhortation to listen with the ear of our hearts does not require us to be members of a religious order as we struggle to discern the instructions of the divine Teacher.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And after they responded, he followed up with, “What about all of you? Who do you say that I am.” I have been reading James Carroll’s newish book, Christ Actually: the Son of God for the Secular Age. The book was inspired by a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his student and friend Eberhard Bethge. At a time when many German Christians had no crisis of conscience over the Nazi program, Bonhoeffer intuited the need for a radically reimagined Jesus:
“What keeps gnawing at me,” Bonhoeffer writes, “is the question, What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether…. The question to be answered would be, What does a Church, a congregation, a liturgy, a sermon, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we talk about God without religion?… Christ would then no longer be the object of religion, but something else entirely, truly the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?”
We have observed or been part of the wrestling with questions such as these over the last 70 years since Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom just a few days before the end of the war. We have made some progress. The word ‘genocide,’ for example, was first used in 1944, and while there may be universal condemnation of the practice, we can point to numerous eruptions of genocidal violence in places like Cambodia, the former Balkans, in Africa and elsewhere. And then there is the cultural genocide we in North America have enabled.
If the gospel is good news, where do we find hope as we continue to struggle with these questions? What spoke to me over the past two weeks as I let today’s readings marinate, was the idea of asking God to give us the heart of a teacher. For the best teachers meet a person wherever they are and they listen carefully to the problem or challenge at hand, and they work together to apply the wisdom or the resources or techniques or models that will bring understanding and accomplishment.
As people shaped by eucharistic practice, we ask God each week to feed us with spiritual bread for our journey. May that include giving us compassion to bring healing, reconciliation, and hope into a world overflowing with pain. May the spirit of Christ the Teacher actually fill our hearts with the shalom of God.