Good teachers take us from where we are, to a place we couldn’t even quite imagine before we began the journey of learning.
Sometimes the choice to be a learner, to be a student, isn’t something we consciously make. Imagine a young baby swimming in the sea of noise and human language from which meaning emerges as they learn to listen and then speak.
Imagine the immense excitement and the hope and possibility of a kindergartener on their first day of school. Imagine how much learning awaits a first year medical student on day one of anatomy and physiology. It’s hard to imagine what all you will learn when you move to a new city or join a new family or embark on a life of faith.
A good teacher takes us from where we are to a place we didn’t even know existed before we began the journey of learning.
Who are some of the best teachers you’ve ever had in your life? Take a few moments to think about who they are. Let one of their faces come to your mind. What are some of their characteristics? What, specifically, made or makes them such a good teacher?
Our gospel text from Matthew 23 presents Jesus as the model teacher, the model rabbi. He’s certainly fiery and definitely confrontational. He’s vivid in his language and seems to attract, if not students and disciples, at least crowds. His charisma and authority drew others to him. Even if he wasn’t everyone’s favorite teacher – no one could deny the gravitational pull of his message.
And in our text we find Jesus in the middle of a long section of confrontation and criticism of other Jewish religious leaders of his day. Jesus has argued with Pharisees and chief priests and Sadducees. And if we kept reading in Matthew 23 we would hear a long litany of woes, with some of Jesus’ most cutting and caustic comments found in all the gospels.
Perhaps the highpoint of Matthew is in the fifth chapter , where Jesus pours out a cascade of benedictions on the poor in spirit and those who mourn and the meek and hungry and merciful and the peacemakers and the persecuted.
But here in Matthew 23 Jesus is teaching and sermonizing in the negative. Don’t create burdens for others, don’t seize honor, don’t crave titles and adulation.
To hear such negative language can be dangerous for us. As one commentator puts it – “a danger in canonizing and reading sacred texts that lambaste a group other than ourselves is that we assume we are called to join the chorus of criticism.”1
Jesus can be for us the model teacher without us needing to denigrate the other teachers of his day.
“Don’t be such a Pharisee. Don’t be such a hypocrite.” You might have heard this sort of speech before in colloquial everyday expression. Jesus in the gospel of Matthew might get to use such dangerous language.
But we don’t.
The headlines of world news continue to flash across our screens. As the Israeli government unleashes violence in Gaza it’s really important that we as Christians do not perpetuate anti-Jewish and antisemitic teachings. And we also must advocate for a just peace and an end to war in all forms. Given our text and this current context, here’s a few reminders:
Jesus is Jewish. He is engaged in intense debates with other Jewish teachers of his day. Also, early Christian communities out of which the gospel of Matthew emerged are comprised of Jewish believers of Jesus finding identity and meaning in a world after the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Finally, Christians in a post-Holocaust, post-Shoah world need to be conscious how mischaracterizations and interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries have fed antisemitism and contributed to ongoing violence against Jewish people and communities.
Yet in noticing the danger of misinterpreting Jesus’ words, I hope we can also grasp the larger arc of his teaching. Jesus begins our passage by complimenting the scribes and Pharisees – noting that they sit on Moses’ seat, teaching from a place of authority, interpreting God’s gracious gift of the law. And Jesus tells those listening to “do whatever [the scribes and Pharisees] teach you and follow it.” Because Jesus goes on to say, but “don’t do what they do” we often miss his initial positive instruction.
Even though Jesus criticizes how leaders act in attention seeking ways – we shouldn’t forget that Jesus, like the Pharisees, wore fringes on his garments, fringes which some are described as reaching out to touch for healing. And phylacteries, leather boxes worn on the body containing scripture, hold sacred words proclaiming love of God and love of neighbor, upon which Jesus said, “hang all the law and prophets.”
We don’t have to put down others to lift Jesus up as the model teacher, as the Prince of Peace. We can let Jesus be the fiery prophet and provocative teacher that he was and is. We can draw close to Jesus, we can learn from him, we can even take up our crosses and follow him… but ultimately we aren’t Christ, we’re Christians.
We’re not saviors but servants. We are not gods ourselves, but students of the Living God. To be a student of the living God is to draw close to God even though we may not know where God’s teaching will take us.
A beautiful vision of drawing close to God is given to us by our Joshua text. Forty years in the wilderness has been a learning journey for the people of Israel. They have experienced what it means to trust God’s love day-to-day rather than the hollow certainty Pharaoh’s violence sought to maintain.
In Joshua 3 the people stand on the edge of the Jordan River, waiting to cross into the promised land. God tells Joshua to select twelve men from each tribe to bear the ark of the Lord and walk into the river. When they first step into the river, the waters pile up into a heap, just like the Red Sea split in two as they walked out of slavery in Egypt. Here they are again, about to walk into a new life. All of the people crossed over on dry ground – some walking, others I imagine being carried, all of them making it. And throughout this great crossing over, the priests stay put, remaining in the middle of the river, with the ark of the Lord on their shoulders, until everyone is across.
God’s instructions here are to “stand still in the Jordan.” God’s hope for the people is that they would know that “among you is the living God.” Drawing close to the living God here meant hoisting the ark of the Lord, this holy container for the law, God’s presence poured into precious words.
When we are close to the presence of God, when we draw near to God, we become like priests pointing to the One who is Lord of all the earth. When the crowds and disciples drew near to Jesus, they became students of the living God, of the word made flesh. Sometimes students need reminders of what they are learning. I imagine that those favorite teachers you recall probably repeated some of their best lessons over and over again.
As students we trust that God’s loving presence will carry us through to the other side of whatever challenges we face. We dip our toes into the water sometimes unsure if we’ll make it across this time. We carry God’s words around with us in our heads and our hymnals, in the prayers we pray over our children, and the mutterings that slip out under our breath.
Jesus’ reminder to the people listening to him – is that whatever God has said, is saying, and will say – we will be in the best place to hear it and learn from it as students. We will best follow God’s leadership as servants. And when we recognize that God is the only Parent, the only Authority, the only mysterious Teacher and Instructor of us all – we are able to turn our heads around this glorious classroom we call earth and see only fellow students sitting beside us.
I hope that when you all think of your favorite teachers – Jesus comes to mind. His face wears so many disguises – faces of the poor and suffering, faces of hope, faces of bravery and perseverance and wonder and gentleness and courage. Perhaps what marks all the best teachers and what certainly marks the life of Jesus – is that love that shapes all their pedagogy. Love is their curriculum. They impart a love of their subject matter onto their students. What is fascinating about Jesus is that his subject matter is God. And we believe that he, by the power of the spirit, is also God incarnate.
The gift, the good news, of being students of a living God, is that God both present in the middle of the streams of life and carrying us to the other side.
- Richard Gardner, Matthew, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991), 339. ↩︎