By Harris Franklin Rall
There are two reasons why we wish to study Jesus' method as a teacher. We should like, first of all, to learn the secret of his success. Here is one whose work covered but a few months, or at most a few years. He penned no line, nor arranged for others to write down what he said. And yet his words, flung upon the air, have lived on imperishable; their light has guided the faith of men, and their power has transformed human life and history. Second, we must study the method of his teaching in order to interpret his words rightly. Few teachers have been so often misunderstood, and this has been largely because men did not understand his way of teaching.
The Character Of His Teaching
He Sets Forth No System.—The ordinary teacher has a more or less complete system of ideas which he sets forth in order one after the other. That was not the method of Jesus. He gave to men a wonderful revelation of God; but he never said to his disciples, "Now I will tell you about the doctrine of God and prove his being and describe his attributes." He taught simply as the occasion demanded. His great messages were called forth by the need of the hour or suggested by some incident of the way. He sees a dead sparrow and makes it a text from which to preach on God's might and God's care; not even that sparrow can fall without your Father, he says. He is criticized for associating with sinners; his answer is the story of the prodigal son with its revelation of a God of mercy. A woman by a wayside well calls forth the message about worshiping in spirit and in truth. The effort of disciples to keep some little children away brought out the great truth that the kingdom of God belongs only to the childlike.
He Is Interested in Life, Not Theory.—Too often the interest of the church has been in doctrine for its own sake; to have correct beliefs was considered the most important matter in religion. Jesus cared for men and not for ideas. The truth that he cared about was truth that would make for life. That is why there are so many subjects about which he did not speak. His silence here means as much as his speech. When men brought him matters of dispute or curious theory, he always turned them to something vital. These men whom Pilate killed, they asked him, were they sinners above others? That is an idle question, says Jesus: here is something more important: If you do not repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13. 1-5).
He Sees Eternal Truth in Common Things.—Although Jesus' teaching is practical, it is not shallow; he deals with common needs and common duties, but he lifts them up to the plane of the eternal. It is the common life in which he is interested: how to love and help folks, how to be a good neighbor, how to have peace and joy. But he brings heaven itself down to light up these common things. He tells those that clothe the naked and visit the prisoner that they are doing it to the Christ himself. Loving your enemy, he says, is nothing less than being a son of the Most High God. And the peace that he gave men was to come because they saw God himself in their world and in all their life.
His Knowledge of Men.—And this teacher knew men; that was another secret of his power. He had not been brought up apart in some king's palace. He had lived the common life. He knew what hard work was. As the eldest son of a widowed mother, he knew what it meant to plan and provide. He knew the burdens and sorrows of common folks. He knew their sins: their shallowness and selfishness, their love of wealth, their pride, their worry. He knew the nobler part that was in them, the higher possibilities that lay buried under sin. He knew the man that might be, as well as the man that was, and his faith in the better man became a power in such men's lives. Other men, as well as he, saw Levi, the despised taxgatherer; he alone saw Matthew, the apostle and evangelist.
Teaching By Pictures
Its Value and Power.—Jesus' teaching was picture-teaching, and a large part of its simplicity and power lies here. Modern education knows the value of the appeal to the eye, and the "movies" show how popular such an appeal is. Nowhere is the picture more needed than in teaching spiritual truths. It holds the indifferent man, it convinces the unwilling, and it makes the simplest and dullest to see. And never was one who used pictures like Jesus. He took the familiar things of common life, bird and beast, grain and weed and flower, salt and seed and candle, men at work and children at play; but these common things he made to speak to men of all the high truths of heaven and earth.
We note the simplicity and clearness of the teaching. Men were afraid to trust God, he was so holy and so far off. Jesus took his picture from the most familiar experiences of life. He put that picture into one word, and into that word he packed a whole creed. He bade men say, "Father," and in that word gave them a new faith. He found men burdened with anxiety and fear; he said, "Consider the lilies." He saw them scrupulous about the rules of religion, but hard and selfish at heart; he said, "You must be children of your Father."
But simple as Jesus' teaching is, his phrases are crowded with meaning. Single phrases have whole sermons in them, driven home in unforgetable pictures. It was a customary form of Jewish teaching, as was the parable, but used by none other as by Jesus. These sermons in a phrase have -become part of our common speech: a house divided against itself, wolves in sheep's clothing, counting the cost, grapes from thorns, whited sepulchers, the first shall be last, salt of the earth.
The Poetry of Jesus.—A separate lesson might well be given to the study of Jesus as poet. It was not, of course, the poetry of labored effort, but the speech of a soul that, itself filled with beauty as with truth, saw all things truly and spoke all things well. Not even the translation from Aramaic to Greek, and again from Greek to English, can hide from us this form. Jesus' parables are like pictures. There is perfect composition, no line out of place. There is the frugality of the artist; not a word can be spared, nor need another word be added. Each phrase, each picture, has a certain finality. We feel that this has been said once for all; hereafter we can only repeat. And so we do not wonder that these phrases have passed over into the common speech of all lands and ages.
Hebrew poetry did not use rime and did not depend upon meter as commonly with us. In this respect it was more like the modern vers libre. Its special mark is parallelism. Line is placed by line, sometimes repeating the thought, sometimes contrasting, but always so that these lines together form a whole. The psalms give the best examples. To this form of poetry the speech of Jesus rises again and again. Here, for example, is the close of the Sermon on the Mount. The parable forms two stanzas. In each of these, two longer lines state the theme, four short lines follow, with a long line in conclusion. The strong line that closes the first stanza is like the rock upon which the house rests; the last line of the second stanza is like the solemn tolling of a funeral bell.
The Sermon on the Mount is rich in such passages. Note especially the beatitudes, and the whole passage about the single heart and the single trust (Matthew 6.19-34). Here noble thought is fitted with speech as beautiful as it is simple, while over all is the atmosphere of Christ's own peace. The first half of Matthew 7 is entirely composed of passages cast in the Hebrew poetic form. In none of this is there the sign of labor. It is merely the beauty of form instinctively chosen for pure and noble thought.
What is a Parable?—Most of the pictures that we have spoken of so far are simple likenesses. The parable is another form of Jesus' picture-teaching, and one that demands special attention. The parable is an invented story, like the fable or the allegory. It differs from the fable in being a story that might naturally happen. The parables have no talking animals, for example, like the fables of Aesop. Even more important is the difference from the allegory. A parable, like an allegory, is a story used to prove or illustrate some spiritual meaning. In an allegory, however, like the Pilgrim's Progress, each figure and incident has its special meaning, and one must ask continually, what does this mean? and what is that? The parable, on the other hand, is an argument intended to prove one central point. Other points may suggest a comparison, but the real point of the parable is one.
Some Difficult Parables.—Many of the difficulties in the parables will disappear if we realize this, that they are arguments meant to prove one point. Here is the unrighteous steward (Luke 16.1-12). Jesus does not commend his sharp practices. The parable has just one point: let the disciples be as efficient in the affairs of the Kingdom as this man was in his own selfish interest. There is just one point in the parable of the eleventh-hour laborers (Matthew 20. 1-16). We are not servants in a market place waiting to be hired. God is not a mere master dealing with his workmen. Nor does Jesus teach that men should get equal wages whether they work one hour or twelve. God is like the Lord of the vineyard in just one thing: he gives, and does not simply pay. He deals with men not after their desert, but according to his grace.
The Parable of the Forgiving Father.—None of the parables of Jesus is better known than that of the prodigal son. Its theme is that eternal one of a boy's waywardness and a father's love. It should be called the parable of the forgiving father. Jesus did not tell it in order to picture human sin and its consequence, though it does that wonderfully. The story is his argument in answer to the criticism of his foes (Luke 15. 1, 2, 11-24). They had criticized him bitterly for associating with the taxgatherers and other religious outcasts, or "sinners"; he was violating the law, overturning all order, and actually encouraging unrighteousness. So Jesus tells them the story of this father and his boy. Just where his story was leading them his hearers probably did not see. But even the Pharisees must have been moved as they saw the old man, worn with his waiting, at last catch sight of the boy far down the road and run out to meet him. He forgets the boy's rags and filth and even his sin, nor does he mind what the neighbors say. He has won back his boy, and that is enough. God is like that, says Jesus. His rule is mercy and his joy is in winning back his wayward children.
Four Examples.—Four of Jesus' stories usually classed with the parables may better be called examples. They are those of the good Samaritan, the Pharisee and publican in the temple, the foolish rich man, and Dives and Lazarus. What we have in each case is an impressive illustration setting forth a great spiritual truth. And how effective these examples are! Men who cannot understand a discussion of justification through faith, look at the Pharisee and publican, and see that God's one concern when men come to him is the penitent and humble heart. The rich farmer, standing with poor and naked soul before God, shows us in a flash the folly and failure of what men call wisdom and success.
The Good Samaritan.—It was the question of a quibbling lawyer that called forth the story of the good Samaritan. In answer to an earlier question, Jesus had declared that the heart of all religion was the simple law of love. What God wanted, in other words, was just being a neighbor. And now he shows us in a picture what being a neighbor means. A poor traveler had been plundered and beaten on that robber-infested road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Priest and Levite passed him by, religious men who did not know what real religion was. The Samaritan may have had his natural prejudice against this Jew, but what he saw now was not a Jew, but only a brother in need, his neighbor, no matter how far they were separated in home and in race. To have a heart of love for all men and to show it to the man in need, that is religion. And through all ages, as men think of this, there will stand before them this Samaritan.
The Misuse Of Jesus' Teaching
Allegorizing.—Three mistakes are often made in connection with the teaching of Jesus. The first is that of allegorizing. Men have not been content to take the single simple point of the parables, but have tried to find some hidden meaning in every part. So in the parable of the prodigal son men have found a meaning for the far country and the famine, the husks and the swine, the robe and the ring, the shoes and the calf, and many other matters. There is, of course, no agreement among such allegorizers, and no limit except the imagination of the individual, who reads into it his own particular doctrine or system. This system flourishes in the Roman Catholic Church and in certain Protestant circles.
Literalism.—The second mistake is that of literalism. Jesus used vivid phrases to startle men and pictures to make them see. It was the method of the poet and prophet, and men have too often lost the meaning by turning it into dull prose. They declare we must be loyal to the word of Jesus and so take it letter by letter. But where is the Christian who hates his father and mother (Luke 14. 26), who cuts off his right hand, or plucks out his right eye? (Matthew 5. 29, 30.) And what shall we do when he tells us at one time to let our light shine before men, and a little later that we are not to let the right hand know what the left hand does? Or again when he says, "Peace I leave with you," and then, "I came not to send peace, but a sword?" Jesus' teaching has made literalism impossible for those who will really study it. It is the spirit that Jesus cares for in our life, and it is the spirit that we must discern in his teaching.
Legalism.—The final mistake is that of legalism, or the effort to turn Jesus' teaching into a new system of laws. But it was not rules that Jesus came to bring, but life. Jesus' idea of religion was not a better set of laws, but a new spirit in the hearts of men. All this becomes plain when we look at his teachings. There is no effort to set forth any system of laws; rather he is like the wise physician, prescribing this for one patient and that for another. To the rich young ruler he says, "Sell all which thou hast"; but he does not require this of Zacchaeus. One man he tells to leave all and follow; but the Gadarene demoniac he sends back to his people. Systems of law come and go, like systems of theology; they must be suited to conditions and times. But the message of Jesus is eternal; to every age he says, "The words that I have spoken unto you are spirit, and are life."
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Luke 13. 1-5; Matthew 13. 34; 5. 1316; Luke 10. 29-37; 15. 11-24.
This lesson is mostly concerned with Jesus' picture-teaching. Read carefully the discussion. It is most important, however, to read as fully as possible in the Gospels themselves, testing for yourself every point made in this chapter.
Write out from memory as long a list as you can of the objects used by Jesus for illustration, including the parables.
Make as long a list as you can of the parables from memory.
Select two of these parables and give the meaning.
Recall some of the doctrines in regard to which Christian people have disputed and Christian churches divided. Are any of these discussed by Jesus?
What do you consider the most beautiful of the parables or other messages of Jesus?