Our Gospel today gives us Jesus, in the characteristic role of a teacher. Jesus is called “teacher” at a number of points in the Gospels: his disciples called him “teacher,” and so did the crowds that gathered around him. It was a term of respect and deference, in Jesus’ day, but more particularly signified an interpreter and expounder of the Jewish Scriptures. When people called Jesus “teacher,” they were acknowledging his wisdom, and his insight into the Law and the Prophets.
For example, it’s Jesus the teacher who we see in the Sermon on the Mount, a new Moses giving a new commandment: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). We also see Jesus the teacher when he teaches in parables: those mysterious stories that both conceal and reveal God’s wisdom. “The kingdom of God… is like a mustard seed… when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches…” (Mk. 4:30-32). Over and over again in the gospels, Jesus the teacher is telling the People about the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom grew up alongside his teaching about the king: that is, the hope of Israel for a Messiah, who would establish the kingdom of God. So, we catch him teaching the disciples about the Son of Man, who is to be betrayed, and killed, and then will rise again. This is the second of three times in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus repeats the same teaching.
We heard it for the first time in our Gospel last week: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mk. 8:31). Jesus will repeat the teaching a third time, after he and the disciples turn their faces toward Jerusalem for the final journey.
Jesus’ teaching was not unprecedented, but it was revolutionary. Over the centuries, ancient Israel had learned to hope for a savior, for the coming of a king or messiah who would re-establish the kingdom of Israel. They looked to David’s line for the true heir, who would throw out the foreign invaders and establish a reign of justice, peace, and love. Prophets foretold the Messiah’s coming; the people waited in hope.
So, Jesus’ teaching was not unprecedented, but it was revolutionary. The prophet Isaiah had foretold the coming of a suffering servant, who would bear the sins of the People. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities… it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain… yet he bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:4, 5, 10, 12).
Jesus, the wise interpreter of the Law and the Prophets, put this teaching at the heart of his own ministry as Messiah. Three times he underscored his mission, to be betrayed and crucified, and on the third day rise again. He would give himself to the cross, but it would be God’s will to vindicate him and to raise him up. Through his sacrifice, many would be made righteous. As Jesus tells the disciples in the tenth chapter of the Gospel, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
We should go one crucial step further here, as we consider Jesus’ teaching, because for him, there is more than teaching, the wise and discerning interpretation of Scripture. For Jesus, there is the thing itself, the actual enactment of salvation on the cross. Jesus is preparing the disciples, not just to understand the meaning of salvation, but for an encounter with salvation itself. In Jesus Christ, there was more than the wise interpreter of the Law and the Prophets. In Jesus Christ, we move beyond the teacher and meet the Messiah himself.
No wonder it was only after the betrayal and crucifixion, and the resurrection itself, that the disciples came to understand. The meaning of his words was concealed, and could only be absorbed in retrospect. His teaching was revolutionary, but the man himself turned the world upside down by embracing to the cross. God’s kingdom comes through our willingness to give ourselves. As Jesus says in our Gospel today, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). More particularly, God’s kingdom comes through God’s initiative in giving his only Son. Words were not enough: Jesus made the teaching real through the sacrifice of himself.
As we gather as a church to celebrate the sacraments, we receive the gift of Christ himself, given for us. Through his Body and Blood, we join in his sacrifice of himself, and receive the gift of salvation. He was a teacher, yes, but more than a teacher. For us, he has become the means of life.