Was Jesus Actually a "Good" Teacher?
What using the medium of PARABLE can tell us about experiencing Life with God.
With back-to-school in full swing... well, not really "back," is it... and I guess the swing isn't all that full... but anyway, point being, as we’re gearing up the best we can for whatever version of school is approaching, it’s got me thinking back to my High School days.
Specifically, about some of my teachers.
I imagine most of us are familiar with the phenomenon where there are some teachers you really like and are drawn to, but then there’s others you learn to put up with or avoid altogether. Whether it’s their style, or personality, or some other quantum physic phenomenon, we can all probably think back to high school and conjure up images of teachers we really loved and clicked with and probably even called “good” teachers (shout out to you, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Lehman), as well as those we simply had to endure (tip of the hat to you, Mr. Rogers and Mrs. Krackaeur).
WHEN TEACHERS ARE GOOD
Speaking of good teachers, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to make the claim that Jesus was a “good” teacher.
Most people, whether spiritual or secular, take for granted that when it comes to the great spiritual teachers throughout history, of course Jesus belongs on the short-list.
But when is the last time you really examined that claim?
We might say that a teacher is only good (or not good) insofar as it relates to what the objective of the student is. In other words, one can only adequately judge the efficacy of a teacher when assessed in the light of what the end goal happens to be in their context. Consider for example the SATs, where the goal is as cut and dry as filling in the correct bubbles on the test. We might then reasonably call a teacher good or not depending on how well they prepare students to retain and recall the data most likely to ensure the right answer.
On the other hand, say the student’s goal is to construct a robot who can perform menial tasks, or bake a proper soufflé, or publish a compelling novel. For situations like this simply memorizing information is insufficient. Therefore a good teacher might do things such as: demonstrate to the students how they themselves would perform the task with skilled competence, or, challenge students to think through their own resources and how they might solve problems with their unique ingenuity, or, foster within the student a sense of confidence and grit so that come what may they won’t back down from any obstacle.
It seems to me, then, that a good teacher is one who both
understands what the end objective actually is, and,
leverages proper techniques to help move their students toward it.
So then, if we want to call Jesus a good teacher, by what metrics are we making our assessment?
IS LIFE JUST ONE LONG S.A.T. PREP-COURSE?
I grew up in a religious framework that believed the point of life was to believe the right things so that when you die you would get to spend eternity in heaven.
Life, in other words, is one long SAT prep-course.
Your ticket into heaven (under this premise) hinged on possessing the proper pieces of theological data: Pass the test, you get get clouds and singing and streets of gold (which I guess is supposed to be awesome?), but fail the test, you get fire and demons and darkness forever (which, obviously, sounds way worse than clouds and singing).
For the record, I whole heartedly reject this premise. But if we grant for the moment that it’s true (as my parents and pastors and professors all assured me it was), then Jesus could only be considered a good teacher if he adequately prepared us to get the ultimate answer correct.
In other words, his one job should have been: get earthlings to believe the right thing so that they know what to say when St Peter quizzes them at the Pearly Gate.
But friends—and I think you know where I’m going here—this was not how Jesus taught. He taught primarily in two ways:
Through his actions (which show us how to live and what matters most), and
Through his teachings, using a form we call parables.
WHAT TEACHING VIA PARABLES SAYS
Parables can be thought of as short stories or compacted ideas that use metaphor to invite the listener into a deeper reality.
For Jesus, teaching via parables was not just a nifty pedagogical preference, a handy and clever device for passing on wisdom, no, I think by using parables to communicate characteristics of the Kingdom of God he indicated precisely what it means to engage with and experience the Kingdom of God. (If the term “Kingdom of God” trips you up, imagine it as, “experiencing life in harmony with the Divine.”)
Marshall McLuhan, the father of communications and media studies, is famous for coining the phrase, “The medium is the message.” Which is to say, the way in which you communicate a thing says as much about the thing as what you’re saying about it.
What might that mean, then, when considering that Jesus used the medium of parables to describe chasing after abundant, flourishing life?
For starters, parables—while designed to be simple—are hardly clear. They often use the tangible, physical world around us as a way to bring to mind deeper truths about Reality and what it means to be alive. Things that we might know to be true, but have either forgotten or chosen to ignore. Parables are designed to provoke and to challenge the listener. Therefore it requires effort to engage them. We must allow the story to confront us. To wake us up. To rattle our assumptions.
By using parables, I think Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God (or, life lived in harmony within the reality of the Divine) cannot easily be defined. It’s not a paint by numbers sort of thing. It requires practice, and tension, and paradox. It requires working it out. It requires getting it wrong… a lot... before we start finding our groove.
If life is about getting the answers right, then teaching in parable is clearly the wrong move.
One of the messages that using the medium of parable tells me is that experiencing God is less like baking, where a lack of precision might lead to ultimate destruction (a crust not rising, a cake dry and crumbly), and it’s more like cooking, where you have the basic ingredients, the fundamental elements, but there’s room to play, to imagine, to adapt, to figure out as you go along.
In one sense, this might disappoint us. We have become accustomed to life in this modern, technologically satisfying world, where we have so much access to information and instant gratification at our finger tips. On one hand, there’s much to be grateful for this, absolutely. There is much to be said for immediately acquiring the right answers for all sorts of things and executing tasks quickly and efficiently. We don’t have to learn how to code computers, we can just pull up Squarespace and have a website in minutes. We don’t have to know how to make sushi, we can open GrubHub and have it on our doorstep in 20 minutes.
LIFE WITH GOD IS WILD, DYNAMIC, and FREE
But the Kingdom of God is not like that. It’s not about getting it right. It’s about showing up, listening, loving, learning, and growing.
Unlike Alexa, Parables don’t just give you the right answer, they don’t just tell you how to live. Rather, they invite you to work it out, in your own way, and in your own context.
And I don’t know about you, but I find that incredibly liberating.
If “the medium is the message,” then what message did Jesus convey by using parables to teach about and describe his experience with God?
Maybe it’s this: Life with God is wild, dynamic, and free. Not controlled, static, and predictable.
Experiencing the Divine is meant to be learned and discovered. Not figured out and dissected.
Seeking an abundant, wholehearted life of flourishing should liberate us as it creates new possibilities. Not constrict or confine us as we’re limited to a set of timeless truths that people already figured out 2000 years ago.
In the end, yeah, I suppose Jesus was a good teacher. Because I think he wanted to teach us how to fish… not just give us a magical mahi-mahi taco, filled with an eternal golden ticket.
What do you think?
Have you ever thought about what it means that “Jesus was a good teacher?”
How have you approached the parables in the past?
Does it freak you out to think about life being something other than one long test to get the right answer, or does that sound light and freeing?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Last Week on The Alter
I had a fabulous conversation last week on The Alter with Jon Steingard, former lead singer of Christian rock band, Hawk Nelson, who recently experienced a rather public renunciation of his evangelical roots.
If you missed it, catch it here!
And then join me today at 2pm, live on YouTube or Facebook, for today’s episode of The Alter!
Just want to start off by saying I really appreciate your heart. I've watched several videos of you and you are always kind and honest—two things that are not always the easiest to mesh. You seem to be genuine in your beliefs and your effort to help people. I really respect that.
I had some questions about your interpretation of parables and would like to ask your thoughts.
"...it’s more like cooking, where you have the basic ingredients, the fundamental elements, but there’s room to play, to imagine, to adapt, to figure out as you go along."
"But the Kingdom of God is not like that. It’s not about getting it right. It’s about showing up, listening, loving, learning, and growing.
Unlike Alexa, Parables don’t just give you the right answer, they don’t just tell you how to live. Rather, they invite you to work it out, in your own way, and in your own context."
You also said that parables are meant to show us how to have flourishing, abundant life. So if parables do not have specific answers and are left up to personal interpretation, does that mean each person gets to decide how that abundant life is actualized? That He wants us to have a flourishing life, but He doesn't care how we get there? That He gives us the chicken, but we get to decide what spices and seasonings we want to use?