As a priest I am called to preach and teach, and I must look to Jesus Christ as my model. In this I refer to the real Jesus, the Jesus of Scripture. He clearly loved God’s people, and because of that he could not abide a limited notion of salvation for them. Jesus zealously insisted that they receive the whole counsel of God. He insisted on a dignity for them that was nothing less than the perfection of God Himself (cf. Matthew 5:41).
As a teacher, Jesus often operated in the mode of the prophets. Prophets have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Yet despite Jesus’ often fiery and provocative stances, the Scriptures speak of the eagerness with which many flocked to hear Him.
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).
Sent to arrest Jesus, the temple guard returned empty-handed saying, No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).
And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words, which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).
And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).
Jesus was a complex preacher and teacher. Let’s consider some of His qualities and ponder the sort of balance that He manifests.
I. His authority – The Scriptures often speak of the “authority” with which Jesus taught. The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia, which means teaching out of (one’s own) substance, speaking to the substance of what is taught. Jesus would often say, “You have heard that is was said … But I say to you …” (cf Mat 5 inter al). Jesus spoke from His experience of knowing His Father and of knowing and cherishing the Law and its truth in His own life. He brought a personal weight to what He said. He knew of what He spoke; He did not merely know about it.
This personal authority was compelling; even today, those with this gift stand apart from those who merely preach and teach the “safe” maxims of others without adding their own experience. Jesus personally bore witness in His own life to the truth He proclaimed—and people noticed the difference.
How about you? You and I are called to speak out of the experience of the Lord in our own life and to be able to say with authority, “Everything that the Lord and His Body, the Church, have declared is true because, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it and come to experience it as true and transformative.”
II. His witness – A witness recounts what he has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears, what he himself knows and has experienced. Jesus could say to the Jews of his time, If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him, and I keep his word (Jn 8:55). He attests to what He personally knows; He is not just repeating what others have said.
While we cannot witness immediately to all that Jesus could, for He had lived with the Father from all eternity, as we make our walk we can speak to what the Lord has done in our own life and how we have come to know Him in conformity with His revealed Word.
III. His respect for others – The Latin root of the word “respect” gives it the meaning “look again” (re (again) + spectare (to look)). Frequently in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel, there appears the phrase, “Jesus looked at them and said …”
In other words, Jesus was not merely issuing dictates to an unknown, faceless crowd. He looked at them, and He looks at us. It is a personal look, a look that seeks to engage us in a very personal way. He is speaking to us. His teaching is not merely for an ancient crowd; it is for us. He looks to us, and He looks again. Are we looking? Are we listening?
Do you look with respect to those whom you are called to teach or to the children you are called to raise? Do you engage them by your look of respect and love?
IV. His love and patience for sinners – Jesus could be very tough, even exhibiting impatience, but He is willing to stay with us in a long conversation. One text says, When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them at great length (Mk 6:34). Yes, He teaches us at great length; He stays in long conversations with us. He knows that we are dull of mind and hard of heart, so He persistently and consistently teaches.
Do we do that? Or do we quickly write people off? Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who, frankly, was quite rude to Him at first (John 4). He had a long conversation with Nicodemus, who was also at times resistant and argumentative (Jn 3). He had a long conversation with His Apostles, who were often slow and inept.
V. His capacity to both afflict and console – Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” but just as often said “Woe to you.” Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. All of us fall into both categories. We need comfort but are often too comfortable in our sins. A true prophet fears no man and speaks to the truth of God.
A true prophet has no permanent allies to please and no permanent enemies to oppose. The determination of every moment is based on conformity or lack of conformity to the truth of God. Jesus said to Peter, Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah. (Mat 16:17), and He gave him the keys to the Kingdom and the power to bind and loose. But in the very next passage, Jesus says to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! (Mat 16:23)
VI. His parables – Stories are an important way to teach. A story that registers with us will rarely be forgotten. It is said that Jesus used more than 45 parables; some are full stories while others are just brief images. He used parables to link His sometimes-complex teaching to everyday life and to plant a seed of truth for our further reflection.
Parables are also like riddles. They admit of various interpretations. A good parable leaves its listener wanting more, seeking a definitive interpretation.
Parables are powerful for variety of reasons. Learn stories and learn to share them!
VII. His questions – Jesus asked well over a hundred questions in the gospel. Here are just a few: “What did you go out to the desert to see? “Why do you trouble the woman?” “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you say this of me on your own or have others told you of me?”
Good teachers ask questions and do not rush to answer every question. A question is pregnant with meaning; it invites a search. The Socratic method uses questions to get to the truth, especially on a personal level: “Why do you ask that? “What do you mean by this?” “Do you think there are any distinctions needed in your claim?”
Here is a list of one hundred questions that Jesus asked: 100 Questions Jesus Asked Read them; they will make you think—a lot, I hope!
VIII. His use of “focal instances” – Jesus does not propose to cover every moral situation or every doctrinal truth in one afternoon. He uses “focal instances,” through which He illustrates principles.
A good example of can be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where, to illustrate the principle that we are to fulfill the law and not merely keep its minimal requirements, Jesus uses several examples or focal instances; He speaks to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In Mathew 25:31ff, the Lord uses the corporal works of mercy to illustrate the whole of the Law.
These are not an exhaustive treatment of the moral life. Through the use of illustrations, the Lord asks us to learn the principle of fulfillment and then apply it to other situations.
Good teachers teach principles because they cannot possibly envision or address every scenario. Having instructed their students in first principles, they can trust that their students will make solid decisions when faced with a new situation.
IX. His use of hyperbole – Jesus uses hyperbole frequently: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven (Mk 10:25). If your eye scandalizes you, gouge it out (Mat 5:29). There was a man who owed ten thousand talents (over a hundred thousand years’ wages) (Mat 18:24). It would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a great millstone about your neck than to scandalize one of my little ones (Mat 18:6).
It’s hard to forget effective hyperbole. Who of us can forget Jesus’ parable about the man with a 2×4 coming out of his eye who rebukes his neighbor for the splinter in his? I often tell my congregation, “Go to Mass, or go to Hell,” which is my way of saying that missing Mass is a mortal sin.
Good teachers use hyperbole at the right moments.
X. His use of servile fear – Jesus often used fear-based arguments. He warned of Hell, of unquenchable fire, and of the worm that does not die. His parables feature of a lot of summary judgments at which people are found unprepared, are excluded from Heaven, or are cast into darkness. Jesus warns of the wailing and grinding of teeth. He also warns of a permanent abyss between Heaven and Hell that no one will be able to cross.
Many today are dismissive of fear-based arguments, but Jesus used them; He used them a lot. I guess Jesus never got the memo that this is a poor way to teach! For the spiritually mature, love can and does replace the need for fear-based arguments, but, frankly, many are not that mature, and a healthy dose of fear and the threat of unending regret is often necessary.
To teach as Jesus did is to include warning of judgment and of Hell.
XI. His anger and zeal – Jesus does not hesitate to express His anger and grief at the hardness and stubbornness of many. One day He said, You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt 17:17) And in Mark’s Gospel we read, And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was furious and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them” (Mk 10: 13-14).
Yes, Jesus memorably cleansed the temple and drove out iniquity there. He engaged in heated debates with the Jewish leaders and with unbelievers. He did not hesitate to call them hypocrites, vipers, liars, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets.
A parent who never reacts with anger risks misleading his child into making light of or not being serious enough about wrongdoing, disrespect, or stubborn unrepentance.
We must be careful of our anger, however. We do not have the kind of control over it that Jesus did; neither are we as able to see into people’s hearts as He was. There is a place for anger and Jesus uses it—a lot, actually. Anger signals an important teaching and rebukes a lighthearted response.
XII. His refusal to compromise – There was in Jesus very little compromise about the serious teachings of doctrine or issues related to our salvation. He said that either we would believe in Him or we would die in our sins (Jn 8). Jesus also said that He was the only way to the Father and that no one would come to the Father except through Him. He declared that no one who set his hand to the plow and looked back was fit for the reign of God. Jesus said that no one who would not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him was worthy of Him. We are told to count the cost and decide now, and we are warned that delay might be deadly.
Much of this is countercultural in today’s world. Many insist on a softer Christianity, in which we can love the world and also love God. Sorry, no can do. A friend of the world is an enemy to God.
Jesus teaches His fundamental truths in an uncompromising way. This is because they are truths for our salvation. Following these truths vaguely or inconsistently will not win the day. Some disciplines need to be followed precisely. To teach as Jesus did involves insisting that the fundamental doctrines of our faith be accepted fully and wholeheartedly.
XIII. His forgiveness – Forgiveness may not at first seem to be an obvious way of teaching, but consider that teachers often have to accept that students don’t get everything right the first time. Teaching requires a patient persistence as students first acquire skills and then master them.
While setting high standards, Jesus offers forgiveness, not as a way of denying perfection but as a way to facilitate our advancement by grace and trust.
XIV. His equipping and authorizing of others – Good teachers train new ones.
Jesus trained the Twelve and, by extension, other disciples as well. He led and inspired them. He also prepared them for the day when He would hand on the role of teacher to them. We who would teach need to train our successors and inspire new and greater insights.
Teach me, Lord, by your example, to teach as you taught and to preach as you would have me preach.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Jesus’ Qualities as Preacher and Teacher