I can’t remember his face or much of what this particular high school teacher taught me, but this I do recall: on the shelf beside his desk sat a 12 oz. can of dehydrated water. It was for camping. In case of emergency, he said with a sly smile.
Most classmates didn’t give this tin can any thought. They just took it at face value, asking no questions and coming to no conclusions. But I absolutely loved it. It made me chuckle. But more than that, it made me think.
What I also loved about this can of dehydrated water was that it gave me a sense that this teacher was much more than his vocation. He was someone with a lively mind and a full life, someone who enjoyed a good contradiction, someone who wasn’t afraid of entertaining realities that, at first glance, might make no sense.
In this way, this teacher reminds me a little of Jesus.
This morning is the second Sunday in Lent. During this holy season, we are reflecting together on six ways we can think about and relate to Jesus. Of course, there are many more options than six—and I would encourage you to add to the list.
Last Sunday, we considered what it means to regard Jesus as our friend. In all honesty, this might qualify as the riskiest way to approach Jesus. After all, friendship calls us into an intimate relationship—and intimate relationships require us to grow. And not always do we want to do that.
This week we are considering what it means to call Jesus our teacher. Calling him that means we are his eager students, invited to do what Jesus’ friend Mary did that day Jesus came to visit the home she shared with her sister, Martha.
You remember—Mary made it a priority to sit at Jesus’ feet so that he could school her in the ways of love and life abundant.
In her book, Freeing Jesus, Diana Butler Bass writes that when the gospel writers were being explicit about Jesus’ identity when they gave him a title, two-thirds of the time, they referred to him as Teacher or Rabbi. Not Lord and Savior, not Messiah, not Son of God or Son of Man. But Teacher. Rabbi. Two-thirds of the time.
Even before he was an adult, Jesus was a teacher. You might remember this from Luke’s gospel. At twelve, Jesus ditched his family just as they were heading back home from their Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
After searching frantically, his parents found him at the temple. No passive observer, no curious bystander, Jesus was highly engaged, leaning in to ask pithy questions but also holding his own, astonishing some of his tradition’s most respected teachers with his keen, compelling insights.
Once Jesus grew to maturity and responded to God’s claim on his life, teaching was at the top of his “to-do” list. Once he called his disciples, Jesus quickly moved throughout Galilee, teaching in that region’s synagogues.
What Jesus taught wasn’t the same ol’, same ol’. It’s not what folks had grown up hearing. Jesus shed new light on old truths. He broke open scripture in ways that made it sing.
In Mark, for instance, we learn that the first time Jesus taught publicly, folks were completely gobsmacked by him. Why? Because “he taught as one with authority and not as the scribes.”
Jesus couldn’t not teach. And he taught in just about every way possible.
Sometimes Jesus taught privately, one-on-one, as he did with Nicodemus in our lesson today.
Other times Jesus offered small group instruction—either by design or demand. We remember when Jesus’ inner circle asked him to teach them to pray. It’s a lesson that never loses its relevance, which is why even now, we pray as Jesus taught.
Along with lessons given to individuals or his inner circle, Jesus the teacher, Jesus the rabbi, also taught crowds and multitudes.
His most famous public lecture, his most renowned teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount, a series of lessons about who God is, who we are, and how to be human together in the very best sense of the word.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount makes it plain that Jesus wasn’t just teaching to inform, that is, to transmit information. Jesus taught to form and transform.
Not every teacher can do that. It’s a kind of teaching that changes us and it even the world.
One of Jesus’ most ardent students was certainly changed by what Jesus taught him, and this man wasn’t even Christian. For 40 years, Mahatma Gandhi made it a practice to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount every day. That’s close to 15,000 times. Gandhi was listening to Jesus in scripture not to be informed but rather formed and transformed into a leader devoted to Jesus’ way of nonviolence.
Sometimes Jesus was straightforward when he taught, as when his disciples asked how to pray, as when he sat on a mountainside and spoke. But Jesus also had a knack for teaching in roundabout ways, in ways that left his learners scratching their heads, wondering just what he meant.
We call these lessons parables. Memorable, relatable stories meant not to entertain but engage and educate us in the same way a good poem or a compelling work of art can.
If we are open, each of Jesus’ parables can do to our spiritual imaginations what that can of dehydrated water on my teacher’s shelf did. Jesus’ parables get us thinking. Asking questions. Playing with an idea that might at first seem ridiculous.
I mean, what self-respecting Jew would tell a story in which the protagonist, the person most worth emulating, was a Samaritan? In Jesus’ world, a Samaritan was persona non grata, an enemy, the antagonist in someone else’s story.
Here’s another example of Jesus’ strategic ridiculousness. In his highly agrarian culture, he told a story about a farmer who took her valuable stash of seeds and tossed them willy-nilly, seeming unconcerned that 75 percent would go to waste and grateful for the 25 percent harvest. That’s economic suicide—and still, Jesus told the tale. Why?
Every parable Jesus told leaves us with more questions than answers. And that was by design.
Because our own educations too often have focused on mastering content rather than engaging worthy, even unanswerable questions, we might have never learned that the word “educate” means to “draw out or draw forth.”
Texas minister Jim Rigby challenges the all-too-common habit of viewing students as little more than repositories for teacher-dispensed information. He observes: “The best teacher tells us what we already knew but could not say. A teacher who does not lead us to our own wisdom has robbed us in every way that really matters.”
With his soulful questions, Jesus, the teacher, draws out of us what is already within us, educating us about ourselves, our God, and those around us.
Not because we don’t have better things to do than entertain pithy questions but because we have a realm of love to enter, a kingdom that is waiting to be ushered in by the likes of us. The road to that realm isn’t paved over with memorized scripture or biblical facts. It’s paved with the kind of inquiry that helps us change our hearts and minds. That’s what “repent” means. To consciously change directions because we have genuinely changed our thinking.
That said, being invited to engage questions or come to fresh conclusions is not for the faint of heart. As I’ve already said, it’s a risky kind of education, a threatening kind of formation and transformation.
It’s scary to be invited to think new thoughts or to question certain claims. I find resistance to this all the time in American Christendom, where ideas about who Jesus was and what he taught are so fixed as to almost be idolatrous.
The Spirit needs wiggle room so that it can bring fresh insights and understandings. So that, as with Nicodemus, we can be born to life anew.
Although we have all heard, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” this orientation is not adequately faithful. It ignores Jesus’ religious tradition where honest inquiry and the earnest exploration of differing interpretations was an honorable, even holy pursuit.
Let me just say it: Jesus, the teacher is not afraid of or offended by what we think. He is not intimidated by what we ponder. He is not put off by what we find ourselves genuinely questioning. Doubt, disbelief, and disagreement are not faith’s enemies.
More than anyone else ever could, Jesus knows that the mark of a person who is alive in the Spirit is the willingness to play with fixed understandings, so we are helped to embrace more spacious and life-giving perspectives.
Isn’t this what lies at the heart of his encounter with Nicodemus? Jesus the Spirit-led teacher, knew Nicodemus needed to grow beyond his current understanding, even as thoroughly educated and orthodox as he was.
Two-thirds of the time, the gospels refer to Jesus as teacher, as rabbi. But this great teacher—at least once—needed to be a student too.
In Mark and Matthew both, we are given a story of Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman whose daughter was deathly ill. An outsider to Jesus’ tradition, an enemy even, she asked Jesus to heal her child. He refused. His answer was logical—he had come to minister to his own people, not hers.
Even though this woman was a nobody, even though she had not a single shred of social status, even though she had no right to challenge Jesus, she did anyway. Because, in that moment, she had been placed in Jesus’ path to educate him about the scope of his earthly ministry.
The same Jesus who broke open scripture, the same Jesus who shed new light on ancient truths, also needed what we regularly need—to break free from a fixed understanding.
No, his ministry was not exactly as he had thought, something exclusive to the Jewish people. Instead, his mission of love was meant for each and every person, for all the world, not just a sliver of it. It was an unlikely teacher who helped Jesus transform this understanding and, thanks be to God, Jesus was humble enough to receive instruction.
To my mind, this willingness to open his mind rather than doubling down, this capacity to welcome an even greater truth than he had previously embraced, is what makes Jesus such a profound and trustworthy teacher. One with supreme integrity. One we can learn from as we follow Jesus and discover what lies at the heart of everything he did, said, and understood.
And then—and this is where the real learning comes—we endeavor to live these truths ourselves.