“When the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught” (Mk. 1:21).
In our Gospel today, Jesus appears in the synagogue in a characteristic pose: that of a teacher, an instructor in the law and the prophets. Jesus is on his home turf in Galilee: not his hometown of Nazareth, but at the nearby, next-sized town, Capernaum. As I understand it, synagogue congregations did not depend on a settled ministry of preachers and teachers, but relied instead on the instructional gifts of their own members, or even visitors like Jesus. At the appropriate time, members of the congregation would be invited to “say a few words” of instruction. The synagogue gathering was an assembly of amateurs, you see, and not staffed by professional experts.
Still, the role of a teacher was one that Jesus was well known for. Synagogue worship was not a free for all; the authorities had to invite you to speak, and they no doubt invited Jesus because he was known as a teacher. Mark’s Gospel tells us a little later about a preaching tour Jesus took in Galilee (Mk. 1:39); later, we also see Jesus teaching to crowds in the open air (2:13; 4:1; 10:2). In spite of the fact that the congregation in his hometown didn’t take him seriously (Mk. 6:2), Jesus was well known as a teacher. In fact, more often than not, Jesus was simply addressed as “teacher” (Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17, 38; 12:14; 13:1).
Let’s focus on a few truths about Jesus’ kind of teaching; the sort of teacher he is. The word “education” is rooted in a concept of guidance, where the teacher leads the student from one point to the next: from concept to concept, or from one developmental juncture to the next. Jesus is definitely that kind of teacher, because he leads his disciples from where they are to where they need to be.
We see this most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus begins with “You have heard that it was said…” and then moves quickly to “But I say to you…” (Matt. 5:27-28). He’s the necessary guide who reveals things to his followers, things they would never figure out on their own. He’s leading them from where they are (Point A) to where they need to be (Point B). Under this heading we could file almost every thing that Jesus taught, especially his most challenging teachings, like take up your cross and follow me (Mk. 8:34).
Some have glossed the notion of education to include not only leading the disciple from point to point, teaching what the student doesn’t know; but the uncovering within the disciple of what is already there. It’s not the opposite of the other idea about teaching, but its complimentary truth. I think this is also true to Jesus’ character as a teacher.
We see it in Jesus’ parables: those stories whose meaning is supposedly not evident at first glance, supposedly hidden; but which on further reflection resonate deeply with those who hear them. In the parables we recognize ourselves, like Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son (Lk. 15); or we discover a truth about the nature of the kingdom, like the parable of the mustard seed, which starts small and becomes pervasive (Mk. 4:30).
These allusive stories, supposedly hidden in their meaning, somehow make things clear. At first, we may not get it, we may seem to miss the point; but then suddenly it seems like we’ve always known the meaning. That’s a mark of being a great teacher. With the parables, Jesus the teacher brings out of us what we did not know was within.
A third truth about Jesus’ teaching is that through it, he intends to transform us. Jesus is not concerned with “head knowledge” but with “heart knowledge.” Another way of putting this is that he’s concerned with the formation of the whole person, with our moral character, with who we actually are. As Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength… Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30-31).
Perhaps one thing more about Jesus the teacher; another truth illustrated in our Gospel today. That is, Jesus is never simply the teacher; as if he could be reduced to a purveyor of divine truths, a kind of sacred guru. That’s a very old heresy, though it never seems to go out of style. Our Gospel reading links the teacher to the worker of miracles, the one who “commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mk. 1:27), as they do in our reading. He’s a teacher “with authority” (Mk. 1:27), as it says. Never simply the teacher. There’s more than a whisper of divinity here in our reading: there’s the presence of God, indelibly wrought upon the hearts of those who knew Jesus and heard him teach.
Jesus still teaches us: directly, through the Holy Scriptures; through his agents, the pastors and teachers of the church; deep within each one of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who fills our hearts and propels us forward in mission and ministry. As the early pastor and teacher Clement of Rome prayed, “By thee the nations of the earth are increased, and from all mankind thou hast chosen out such as love thee through thy dear child Jesus Christ, by whom thou hast taught us and raised us to sanctification and honor” (1 Clement 59). What’s incumbent upon us, those chosen to receive it, is to listen closely and pay attention so that we can hear the Teacher.