The Curious Teaching Methods of Jesus

Jesus teaches his disciplesIn many respects, Jesus was an amazing teacher: for example, the whole Sermon on the Mount scenario. The good folks who listened to him were absolutely amazed at what he taught, the power and conviction with which he spoke were undoubtedly inspiring. And I love how he really took it to the Pharisees in some of those impromptu debates. He was always brilliant and I wish I could have listened to him in person.

But as a teacher, I think he employed some methodologies that would leave a lot of today’s educators scratching their heads.

Hear me out on this one.

Mark, in his gospel, chapter four, writes that Jesus starts to teach in parables, illustrations of sort. His disciples ask him why he is doing this and, in my opinion, Jesus’ reply is astonishing:

“The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” (Mark  4:11-12)

From a purely pedagogical point of view, that’s probably not going to fly in most academic settings. I am not too familiar with the aspirations of the No Child Left Behind program from a few years back, but I don’t think this was the idea behind that. Jesus seems to be pushing more of a Yeah, Let’s Leave a Few Behind agenda.

And he seems pretty OK with that. Right after explaining his approach to his discples, he told them a little parable about seeds. Some falls on rocky soil, some on the weeds and thorns, some is stolen by birds (liberal nut jobs or right wing radicals depending on your point of view) and only one in four seeds will find good soil, take root and actually produce a crop. One in four. That’s a 25% success rate, for you non-math majors out there. A teacher turns in those kind of grades right before they turn in their letter of resignation. Jesus, on the other hands, seem undaunted. Some people won’t get it. Can we move on now?

Outrageous! I once flunked a kindergartner in P.E. The kid couldn’t run to save his life, seriously, I thought he was going to injure himself every time he took a step. Was that my fault? Maybe. His parents sure got up in my grill about it. They made sure I at least cared their kid was failing. We worked on running a lot the next semester.

And then he gives them an interesting warning at about verse twenty-four. He says,

“Consider carefully what you hear . With the measure you use, it will be measured to you–and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

What I think he is getting at is this: the word of God is valuable. It does not tolerate those who fail to consider it carefully, and what is more, to apply it. To consider carefully means to put something into practice, to know by experience. Those who do not do this, whatever knowledge they might have gained from Jesus’ teaching would be worth nothing, taken away.

In my opinion Jesus was a tough teacher: his use of parables excluded some, he expected that not everyone was going to get what he was saying, and he had high expectations; if you don’t use what you learn, you will lose it. And I have to admit it is puzzling to me: why would Jesus intentionally hide truth from some people? Why would he seem to be OK with a lot of what he is teaching falling on infertile soil? Why would his teachings, the truth and benefit of them, be taken from those who do not put them into practice? Is it that he is a bad teacher, probably not. I think he knows what he is doing, even if it is not altogether obvious at first glance.

I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Narrow is the path that leads to righteousness. And that, frankly, is just not something we like to hear in our day an age.

But in spite of all of his toughness, his curious pedagogical methods, Jesus is still a teacher that inspires hope. The best teachers do that, I think. they inspire us. He tells his disciples that it is a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, that grows into the largest tree in the garden. This is how the Kingdom of God is being built, with the outcasts, the broken, the small things of this world. And that gives me hope when I feel small and insignificant and like the big dummy in the room who doesn’t get it. Jesus gives me hope which is what good teachers do, of course.

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