As I said previously, I believe that this was how Jesus did for the people what their leaders were failing to do —they were ‘sheep without shepherds’, and so he ‘shepherded’ them by teaching them. And in the process, he began to empower them, as the Church was later to empower people through the gospel.
But surely the question we’d like answered is this: what exactly did Jesus teach? You would have thought that the text would tell us, yet it says absolutely nothing! In fact, the gospels tell us remarkably little about what Jesus taught. There are the parables, there is the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew) and on the plain (in Luke). But Jesus’ recorded ‘teaching’, especially in Mark, is astonishingly meagre.
If you don’t believe me, try looking at a ‘red letter’ Bible, and you will quickly see that apart from what I have mentioned, Jesus’ teaching is confined almost entirely to a relatively few ad loc comments relating to his person or mission. (Interestingly, one of the few substantial blocks of specific material is about marriage and divorce —yet this is one of the things that the Church has recently tried hardest to ignore.)
Even the epistles are apparently no help. References to ‘what Jesus taught’ are notoriously few and far between. If Jesus’ teaching is ‘the heart of the Christian message’ it would seem we have a problem. Significantly, the lacuna seems to have been exploited by the Gnostics, for it is in the ‘Gnostic Gospels’ that we find the kind of ‘esoteric’ teachings of Jesus for which we might have hoped. Yet when we go to these documents, the teaching is hardly of the kind we associate with the Jesus of the New Testament, and hardly the kind of thing we would want to add to our existing understanding.
Nevertheless, as Mark 6:34 makes clear, Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching the people. So what did he teach them? And why do neither the gospels nor the epistles think it worth recording much of this teaching for us?
In the light of what I said earlier, I want to suggest this: that what Jesus taught the people was nothing other than the Old Testament. What he was doing when he addressed various crowds was the beginnings of what we read that he did with the disciples he later met on the road to Emmaus:
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory. And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
As yet he might not have been applying the Scriptures so openly to himself, but he may well have been raising questions, making connections, and laying the groundwork which could later be exploited by the preaching of the Apostles and first evangelists.
If this seems too little to explain how he drew and held the crowds, I would point to my own experience in the mid-1980s when I was with a group of similar-aged clergy (in our thirties) being addressed by none other than Phillip Jensen, brother of the now-Archbishop Peter Jensen.
In the middle of what he was saying, Phillip stopped and said, “Now to understand the next part of my talk, you have to understand how the Old Testament fits together. You do understand that, don’t you?”
But the truth was, we didn’t. Despite years of theological education (three, in my own case), and as much as a decade for many of us in parish ministry, most of us felt the Old Testament to be hostile territory —somewhere where we might find a lesson or two about social justice, and a verse or two about Jesus, but the rest was just confusing.
And so Phillip explained to us how the Old Testament worked. And I can still remember sitting there thinking, “I’ve learned more in the last five minutes than I ever learned in all my time at theological college.” Before, I’d had a miscellaneous collection of bits, now I had something which not only made sense in itself, but led directly to the gospel.
Now if that was what Jesus was doing —taking people who knew the Old Testament, but couldn’t make sense of it, and opening the Scriptures to them —no wonder he gathered the crowds. And this would also explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ teaching in the rest of the New Testament —because it is there behind everything, in the way that the Old Testament is understood, taught and applied, and in the shape this gives to the gospel.
And this would also give us an important indication of what we should be doing —that we should also be learning to present the Old Testament to people, to familiarise them with it, so that it becomes their own story, and to teach the gospel from it, so that they understand properly who Jesus is. This would fit exactly with the end of Luke, which is also the beginning of the expansion of the Church:
Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.
Let us follow his example (if such it is) and do the same.
Revd John Richardson
21 July 2009
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