Is Jesus a Good Teacher?

Is Jesus a Good Teacher? June 13, 2016

“And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’” (Lk. 18:18-19 RSV).

When Jesus asked the ruler as to why he was being called good, some misread this as indicating that Jesus did not believe himself to be good, and therefore, he did not believe himself to be God. But that is not what Jesus said. He did not deny being good, rather, he asked why the ruler called him such. Jesus was interested in the intention behind the word being used, for he understood that the teacher was trying to patronize him by calling him a good teacher before trapping him with a question about eternal life. In this regard, Jesus tells us that the one who is properly designated as good is God, and if someone recognized Jesus as good because he was divine, then Jesus would have had no problem with such a designation being employed. However, when it is being used to form the basis of a conversation by which an inquirer intended to trap Jesus, then the intention was not just. In this instance, Jesus rightfully pointed out that he understood the trap which was intended for him. And yet Jesus did answer the question after showing that it was the ruler who had erred. The answer Jesus had to give did not please his inquirer, which should not be surprising because if someone came to Jesus with bad intentions, Jesus usually used it as opportunity to address the root problem behind the one who asked him the question. Here, the problem was that the ruler loved his riches, and he thought it made him great, so Jesus answered that the ruler needed to sell all that he had and follow Jesus in poverty. Instead of trapping Jesus with the question, Jesus demonstrated how the ruler was trapped by the delusion of avarice.

Jesus was not denying that he was good, nor was he denying that he was God. If examined carefully, what he said actually set up a way for people to understand he is God. If he is seen to be truly good, and worthy of that designation, then he was to be seen as God. The problem is not that we should not call him good, but we must not deny Jesus while trying to appeal to him with such flattery. We must not call him good if we are going to deny who he is. Jesus, in this fashion, set up the kind of apologetic which C.S. Lewis would make famous.  He can’t be a good teacher if who and what he says about himself is false:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level of the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall down at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[1]

Jesus consistently implied in his teachings that he was more than just a wise man sharing his wisdom to his disciples. He was telling them he was God. He applied various traditional Jewish images of God to himself.  Without understanding the Jewish context of his words, it is easy to be confused as to how and why both he and his audience both understood he was declaring his divinity: “The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God’” (Jn. 10:33 RSV).

What did Jesus say that got such a reaction? “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30 RSV). He called himself to be the Son of God, and yet, he said that he was one with the Father, that is, one with God.  Taken by itself, there are many ways this could be interpreted, and some suggest all Jesus is saying is that he is one with the Father in purpose or will, and try to use that to deny Jesus is saying he is God.[2] But we find this text comes soon after Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and continues with that theme, because he told the Jews that his sheep would hear his voice (cf. Jn. 10:27).  That is, his oneness with the Father, his declaration of being God, was indicated by his declaration of being the good shepherd:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me,  as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (Jn. 10:11-16 RSV).

 Good shepherd. Russian icon, 19 c. Niederland. By anonimous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Good shepherd. Russian icon, 19 c. Niederland. By anonimous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is as the good shepherd that he said that his sheep will hear him. It is as the good shepherd his flock will come to know that he is God. Those who fought against him understood the point he was making and said that he was, as C.S. Lewis suggested, either a madman or worse: “There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and he is mad; why listen to him?’” (Jn. 10:19-20 RSV).

How is it that his critics understood Jesus was calling himself God by calling himself the good shepherd? Why did they claim he had to be either mad or demonic? Certainly, they would have first noted that Jesus, in calling himself the good shepherd, called himself good. If they had heard him tell others to call no one good but God, they would have recognized by calling himself good, he was calling himself God. If, however, they had not heard that, they would have easily recognized imagery which the prophets used for God he was applying to himself: that is, the prophets saw God as Israel’s shepherd. For Jesus to declare himself to be the good shepherd he applied what was said about God in his relationship with Israel and use it to indicate who and what he was. That is, God was Israel’s only shepherd, as we see in the book of Ezekiel:

As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.  And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD (Ezek. 34:12-15 RSV).

Jesus, the good shepherd, said he goes to find the stray sheep, to bring them back to the fold.[3] He will go where he is needed to help them return and come back into the fold. He will be able to do so because they will know him and recognize him in his love for them.  He will go out of his way to bring back strays, those whose actions have caused them to miss the intended place God desired for them to be at (that is, for those who have sinned), so that when he finds them and brings them back into the fold, everyone can rejoice (cf. Lk. 15:1-7). As God in Ezekiel is shown to seek out and bring back the lost sheep of Israel, those who had strayed due to sin, so Jesus indicates he has come to bring the lost sheep back to his fold, even if it will cost him his life.

This relationship between the restoration of Israel with God being Israel’s shepherd is not unique to Ezekiel. Jeremiah also made this connection: “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands afar off; say, `He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock’” (Jer. 31:10 RSV). We should not be surprised, therefore, that Jesus’ disciples continue with this imagery. Peter explained the work of Jesus for us as being related to our straying away from God, where we find then Jesus shepherds us and protects us from straying due to sin. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls “(1Ptr. 2:25 RSV). It should therefore be of no surprise that this connection continued in early Christian commentaries on Scripture, as for example, when we read Origen saying:

He said the sheep is like one who has gone astray. And also in the Gospel he said, The Son of Man came to search and save the lost. And also in the parable only one is lost out of the hundred which the shepherd who dwelt with them came to find, who also, after laying it upon his shoulders, returned it to the ninety-nine. For we are all one body and one sheep. He who is the feet, and the head, and the rest, is the shepherd who, after he came, brought together bone with bone and joint with joint, and after he united them, he took them up to his country. And the unity arises through love and truth and the choice of good. Thus to his own Word he united all. [4]

It is interesting to note, in brief, that Origen took the theme under discussion and added to it another dimension, one related to theosis. For Origen the good shepherd not only brings us back on his shoulders; he sees the way we become the body of Christ means that Jesus he unites himself with us, his sheep. To do this he first had to become man. Thus, the good shepherd not only is God, but he is also human, God and servant, which explains why God, after saying he is Israel’s shepherd, also said that he would be sending a shepherd to them: “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23 RSV). The messiah, the servant seen and understood as united to the line of David, is also the shepherd. How else could this be unless the shepherd is both God and man?

And so when Jesus declared himself to be the good shepherd, indicating that he is good, he implied that he is God. He used the image of the shepherd found in the prophets to declare himself to be God and man, God and the messiah. He comes as man, so we can see and know him, but it is only as God, as St. Peter Chrysologus indicated, that he could fulfill the role of the good and loving shepherd who guides the lost back to safety while keeping the rest protected as well:

But this parable is saying even more about God’s mercy than merely expressing a truism about how human beings act. To leave great things behind out of love for those who are most insignificant is characteristic of the power of God, and not of human greed. God both causes the existence of what did not exist, and he pursues what was lost in such a way that he retains what he left behind; and he finds what was lost in such a way that he does not lost what was kept. Therefore, he is no earthly Shepherd, but a heavenly One; and this parable is more than just signifying human labors, but is a foreshadowing of divine mysteries, as will immediately become clear from the very number he mentions when he says:

What person among you who has one hundred sheep, if he loses one of them (v.4).[5]

This should help us understand why Jesus’ critics wanted to stone him for declaring himself to be God. They understood the image of the good shepherd and its implication when Jesus took it upon himself. They knew with David who the shepherd is: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want “(Ps. 23:1 RSV).  When Jesus called himself the good shepherd, and then continued and declared himself to be one with the Father, there was no doubt. He was telling all he is God. And for that reason we are left with a choice as to what we will make of him. Do we see him as the shepherd and God, and so call him good, or do we fight him as a madman or a demon trying to take the place of God? There is no room for him being a good teacher unless he is also the good shepherd, that is, God. As C.S. Lewis indicated, he left us no option for that.


 

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965), 56.

[2] If we were to investigate what would emerge if we believe Jesus is saying he is one with the Father’s will, that is, if we are led to believe that there is one will between the Father and Son, the only conclusion which we can have is that Jesus is still calling himself one with the Father in essence. This, however, would require an examination of the relationship between essence and will which is not necessary for us here.

[3] This is also how we are to read his declaration in Matthew, “”O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt. 22:37 RSV).

[4] Origen, “Fragments From the Catena” in Origen. Homilies on Jeremiah. Homily on 1 Kings 28. trans. John Clark Smith (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1998), 295 [c. 28].

[5] St. Peter Chrysologus, Selected Sermons. Volume 3. trans. William B. Palardy (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2005), 309-10.

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