This Lent we’re following Jesus. We’re following him by getting close to him: carefully listening to the stories about what he did, imagining we were there with him. Then, we’re following the example we’ve seen – putting his actions into our everyday lives.
Today, we follow Jesus as he teaches.
A few of you brave souls are living into this part of Jesus’ example by your profession. You prepare lessons and head into a classroom full of students every day. And some of you brave souls are teachers by volunteerism: you come to a classroom full of students here at church once a week. The rest of us don’t carry the official title, but that doesn’t mean we’re not teachers, too. Teaching is the act of helping someone else learn something, and that’s something we all do.
We teach our children how to walk and talk and use a Kleenex instead of picking their noses. We teach our friends about the book we just read; we teach our relatives about great-grandma’s chicken casserole; we teach our buddy a new grip to try for his golf swing; we teach our coworkers about a shortcut to the office. As we gain information, we want to share it – especially the information we find most important.
Yes, we are all teachers. Whether or not we are effective teachers – that is debatable.
I bet you’ve been on the receiving end of some ineffective “teaching” moments. Like:
…you’re not in a classroom, but you’re being lectured as though you were a student…
…you know you’re right but you’re being told you’re wrong anyway…
…you had a good point to make but the other person just won’t stop talking long enough for you to get a word in edge-wise…
…or even those times when you’ve realized you might be wrong but the conversation doesn’t give you any space for a change of heart.
And do you know what seems to be a haven for bad teaching? Social media. Think: posts that show up in ALL CAPS with angry #hashtags and links to “MUST READ” articles. Truth? When I browse my feed, I start with the first few words… and if I agree with them, I might read a few more. But if I disagree with what I see at first glance (i.e., something contrary to my current opinion that I would have to “learn”) then I quick-scroll past like Road Runner giving Wile E. Coyote the slip. Social media wants to teach us all sorts of stuff, but very little of it is done effectively.
Wait a minute…
I post these sermons on social media.
Wait a double minute…
Before I post my sermons, I deliver them live… as a 15-minute, uninterrupted, no-room-for-disagreement monologue.
IS MY TEACHING INEFFECTIVE? (She asked in all caps!)
That’s a terrifying thought for preacher – but, hey, no time like the present to reevaluate things! Let’s quick take a turn to Jesus and see: How does he teach? And how can we follow his example?
Today we’ll look at just two examples of the many, many stories in which Jesus taught. These examples highlight the primary ways Jesus helped others learn: telling stories and asking questions.
When I say Jesus told stories, I should be a little more specific: Jesus told parables; short, illustrative stories with a point. Maybe you’re familiar with a few of Jesus’ better-known ones: the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the talents… An especially helpful example for today’s purposes is the time that Jesus told a parable and then explained his method (Luke 8:4-15). So imagine yourself a disciple, sitting in some dusty town square and listening as Jesus told a story…
When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.
This parable – and its meaning – is a good and important one, but let’s focus in on the why. Why does Jesus say he teaches in parables?
So that “looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.”
In other words: Jesus tells parables so that people won’t get them.
This answer is actually a quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10. The prophet Isaiah has just been commissioned by God to go and deliver a message, and the message God gives him is this: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” In other words, the point of Isaiah’s “teaching” is to fail – they won’t learn, but instead, they’ll stubbornly keep their same opinions. In early Christianity this same Isaiah passage was used to explain why the Christian message was rejected by some Jewish people (and we say “some,” because Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish – as was Paul, the infamous “apostle to the Gentiles” who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament).
So, is that what Jesus is trying to do here? Tell stories that are intentionally unclear so that, when people fail to “get” them, they’ll stubbornly stick to their preconceived notions?
Certainly some of Jesus’ listeners take that route. The Isaiah quote reminds us that it doesn’t matter how divinely-ordained the messenger is (Isaiah had lips literally touched by God!) – some hearts aren’t going to be turned.
But I can’t help but think: these stories are actually easier to hear if you’re stubbornly committed to being right.
I speak as one with authority, being a bit (ahem, ahem; maybe more than a bit…) stubborn myself. I DO NOT like to be wrong. My husband knows this well. The best way to correct me is to not to – just sit back and wait for me to figure it out myself. (I know, I’m pretty miserable to live with. My husband is a saint.)
But do you know, when I am wrong – even as stubborn as I am – there is one thing that can get me to change my mind. A good story.
Have you ever watched a movie and been moved to tears by what happened to the characters – so moved, that it changed some understanding you have of the world?
Have you ever read a book and thought, “Oh, the way God works in the world is like the way Aslan the lion-king shows up…”
Have you ever gotten invested in a character in a TV show – a character with a different social status or race or opinion than you – and actually changed your mind about that kind of person?
That happens because stories have a way of softening our stubborn hearts. Stories suck us in and open us up to new understandings. Stories stay with us – so that even if we don’t “get it” right away, we keep thinking about it, mulling it over, until (much?) later we think – WAIT A MINUTE!
That’s what stories do. That’s how Jesus taught.
Now to apply that – maybe you’re a great storyteller, and maybe you’ve got a platform on which to tell stories. Maybe you’re a teacher, or a writer. I’m a preacher, so I get to tell stories in my sermons. But for everyday purposes, pausing in conversation to say, “Sit down, friend, and let me tell you a story…” might come off as a little odd.
Unless it’s one of the stories we tell very naturally: our own stories.
If we, as Christians, want to teach others about Jesus, pulling out our Bibles and giving someone a lecture about the path of salvation isn’t often very effective. But to tell someone a story about our own relationship with Christ when it relates to the conversation – that can be very effective. It also feels much less awkward, especially when we don’t tell our own stories in a pushy, this-has-to-be-your-story way. It can be as easy as telling someone the way we discovered a shortcut to work or how that golf grip put 10 yards on our drive.
It can… but that takes practice.
Talking about our experience with God can be uncomfortable, at first. Our faith is very personal. We worry what people might think. We’re out of practice at finding the right words to talk about God. Fortunately, there’s a great place to practice telling our stories: church. In a Sunday School or a small group we can talk about our faith among others who understand it, so that we can be ready to tell our stories to those who might learn about Christ through them.
If you want to teach others like Jesus did, tell stories. And your own story is probably your best material – so get comfortable with it, and tell others about it.
Jesus didn’t only tell stories, though. Jesus taught by another method almost as often. It’s something Jewish rabbis were known for, but I think Jesus did it especially well. Walk with me into the moment when a lawyer asks Jesus a question (Luke 10:25-28). Imagine yourself as a disciple, standing nearby to see how Jesus will answer:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Do you see what Jesus did there? How did Jesus answer the lawyer’s question?
By asking another question.
And it’s not just to dodge a bullet – although, it does help for that. When I first became a pastor, I was terrified of peoples’ questions. I was still in seminary and the more I studied, the more I understood how very little I knew. Things like God and the Bible are really, really complicated subjects – and people ask pastors about those sorts of things on the daily. So I took to following Jesus’ example. My stock response became: “What do you think about that?”
I started doing it because it bought me time… but over the years, I’ve kept doing it because I’m amazed at peoples’ answers to their own questions. So many people, like this lawyer, know the answer; maybe they just lack the confidence to trust their instincts. It’d be silly to presume that I’m the only one with the “right” answer.
Now sometimes, people ask me questions because they really have no idea. But when I start by asking a question in response, it helps me understand more of where they’re coming from. Sometimes I realize I misinterpreted what they were asking about and would have answered it incorrectly if I had just jumped right in. Other times, I think of more good questions to ask this person that might help them to uncover the answer for themselves.
And that is a great way to learn, is it not? It’s like doing math homework: if someone is given the answers to the problems, they’ll get the problems right – but they haven’t really learned the math. When we have to work it out for ourselves we learn in a way that sticks with us.
So when someone comes to you with a question – or anytime you want to teach someone something – consider asking some questions. Odds are, you’ll end up teaching each other.
Alright, followers of Jesus: how did Jesus teach?
By telling stories and asking questions.
And when you want to teach, it’s a good idea to do the same. But one last thing to keep in mind: good teachers don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk. Jesus most certainly did that: he lived out the stories he told, he embodied all the answers to his questions. So above all may we follow the advice commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.