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There is an age-old adage, “Like teacher, like student.”
In the gospel of Matthew we read: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25, cf. Luke 6:40)
We take on the characteristics of our teachers. This is why choosing an appropriate mentor or instructor is an important step in becoming who you want to be: your teachers shape the kind of person you become. An example is a few years ago I wanted to learn how to throw pottery. I didn’t just go out an sit at the feet of any one who does pottery. I choose teachers who throw pottery well and whose style I also appreciate. Find teachers who, themselves, resonate with what you want to become.
This translates into every area of life. If I want to become something different than I already am, then I need to increase the diversity of those I allow to teach me. If I want to stay the same and never risk changing, then I need to choose teachers that are just like me. If I do the latter, though, it’s not likely that genuine, revolutionary learning can take place. It is likely that my old ways of thinking will only be reinforced and more deeply ingrained.
Lukes version of the saying above states, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” (Luke 6:40) This passage invites us to choose teachers with developed senses of perception. If you choose teachers who are ignorant rather than aware, you will share in their ignorance. Fully trained students are like their teachers. So if you want keen perception for yourself, stop giving the seat of instruction in your life to those who cannot see. This could be one of the most revolutionary things some of us can do to change our lives: simply choose a different set of teachers. For me, I experienced this reality when I simply took the advice to begin finding teachers who do not share my social position of privilege.
In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is contrasting his teaching with the popular teachings of his time. Examples of contemporary teachings included the Pharisees’ drift away from Hillel to Shammai, and the idea that violent revolution was needed to overthrow Rome. For Luke, however the strongest teachings that Jesus competed with are the economic models of his day. Luke presents a world based on the economics of care. The Reign of God to Jesus is people taking care of people, a world where people come before profits, and where exploitation and subjugation give way to the predominant need, as opposed to being the means of an elite’s greed.
Matthew’s gospel has a different focus: Jesus encouraging his disciples. When the disciples are mistreated, Jesus says, they are simply receiving the same treatment Jesus was faced with. This teaching has been helpful to me, too.
Whenever I am being labelled as evil because I’m teaching something found in the teachings of Jesus about inclusion or justice, I go back and reread the entire chapter of Matthew 10. It doesn’t make the treatment any more comfortable, but it does encourage me that I’m not alone. I’m standing in a stream that stretches far back before me and will continue on long after me. It helps me to think of all who have been ill-treated for standing up for what is right. I remember the saying, “Worse things have happened to better people.” And most of all, I realize that I’m in the right story. What I’m experiencing is nothing new, and others were here before me.
Being like Jesus
My friend David Hayward at NakedPastor.com drew a sketch that sums up this teaching nicely! (see http://i0.wp.com/nakedpastor.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/more-like-jesus.jpg) What does it mean to be like Jesus? Do we really understand all that it means to become like the teacher we read about in the gospels? This week, another friend of mine, Mark Van Steenwyk of the Center for Prophetic Imagination, reminded of a statement by the late German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle:
“Really living like Christ will not mean reward, social recognition, and an assured income, but difficulties, discrimination, solitude, anxiety. Here, too, the basic experience of the cross applies: the wider we open our hearts to others, the more audibly we intervene against the injustice that rules over us, the more difficult our lives in the rich unjust society will become. (Dorothee Solle Thinking about God: An Introduction to Theology. Page 133.)
Being like Jesus involves learning how to love, how to embrace those at the bottom of our society’s various pyramids of domination, oppression, and subjugation. For me, it also means learning how to correctly work alongside those being marginalized and embracing accusation, rejection and possibly execution. There are many who have lived that kind of life. In history, there are countless others who have also lost their lives for standing up to the status quo and working to make this world a safer home for all.
I’ve learned over the last few years that following Jesus doesn’t only mean trying to teach the same things he taught. It also means standing in solidarity with those Jesus stood in solidarity with and having the courage Jesus had to keep standing with them even when threats arise from those who benefit from the way things are and who feel threatened by change.
Related to this, Lucretia Mott, a historical figure I look up to, was fond of quoting William Penn’s statement, “Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.” (Faulkner, Carol. Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Page 43.) I’ve noticed among my secular friends that although many of my fellow U.S. Christians have developed very strong notions about Christ, at the same time, others perceive these Christians as very much unlike Christ. We may think we’re being faithful by defending strong beliefs about Jesus and yet we miss that being faithful to him includes being faithful to the people he was faithful to. Many of my Christian friends who live lives engaging the work of societal justice have very progressive views about Jesus. Faithfulness to Jesus means standing in solidarity with those in our day who are discriminated against and marginalized as the Jesus we see in the gospels stood in solidarity with his marginalized peers.Will this faithfulness come with accusations? Will we, like Jesus, also be accused of doing the work of Beelzebul? Quite possibly.
I appreciate Edersheim’s comments on what Beelzebul meant.
“This charge . . . had a double significance . . . Zebhul (Hebrew) means in Rabbinic language, not any ordinary dwelling, but specifically the Temple, and Beel-Zebul would be the Master of the Temple. On the other hand, Zibbul (Hebrew) means sacrificing to idols; and hence Beel-zebul would, in that sense, be equivalent to lord or chief of idolatrous sacrificing – the worst and chiefest of demons, who presided over, and incited to, idolatry.” (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah)
Edersheim connects the name Beelzebul to Jesus’s activity at Jerusalem’s temple. Where I part ways with Edersheim is that I see Jesus’s temple protest as being much more economic/political and not religious. Jesus was protesting an economically exploitative system of which the Temple had become the center.
Don’t miss that calling Jesus Beelzebul (the “chiefest of demons”) was a response to his standing up to the status quo religiously legitimizing the subjugation and marginalization of a certain sector of society. When your choices align with this type of action, people today might call you the chiefest of demons too.
Losing much, but gaining much as well.
My own “faith-based” solidarity with marginalized groups has been the basis some of my other Christian peers to speak negatively of me. I’ve been called “a traitor,” “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and even “the devil.” Jesus’ words in Matthew are quite on point.
Over the last five years, I have lost much. I have also gained much. I used to preach about the love of a God in a way that anesthetized consciences and made my audiences passive about those who were being hurt. I regret that.
My path changed as I began to listen. When I became open to choosing different teachers in my life. Choosing to listen was not an intellectual choice; it was an intuition based on empathy. Others shared their hurt with me, and I chose to hear them. When we encounter the pain of others, pain that a system that benefits us causes, we have choices to make. We can choose to make excuses or blame the victims. We can choose to justify the way things are, as if change is not possible. Or we can stop and choose instead to listen, to be humble, and to be honest.
My personal “disciples are like their teachers” journey, began with standing up for LGBTQ folks within Christian contexts. I initially lost a lot of friends over this, and the ministry I founded also lost a substantial amount of support. We have never fully recovered from those losses. Yet, I have also gained new friends. These new friends are some of the most beautiful people that I had no idea shared this planet with me, and yet I still miss my old friends.
I haven’t and couldn’t “replace” my old friends, and wish that they would also choose a posture of listening. As my circle of friends has gotten larger, I often wish it still included some of the people who used to love me and my work. I’m learning that they may have liked what I said or how I made them feel, but they weren’t able to grow with me.
Where I came to was were every student who chooses different teachers eventually stands: at the choice to focus on what I understand Jesus of Nazareth taught and to promote and apply those same things in my life. or not. I was done trying to simply make people feel good. I wanted to work with others to make our world a safer, more compassionate home for us all, to make our world a place where people take care of people and only Love reigns.
Peter Maurin co-founded The Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day, and wrote in 1936: “I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”
And I’m grateful I’ve found a community of friends who are working toward the same goals. We don’t always answer some of the smaller questions the same way, but on the big ticket items, we are teammates. I’ve only gained this community by becoming more like “the Teacher.” It is exponentially more rewarding and satisfying.
It was sometimes very scary to watch old friends change their opinions about me, sometimes publicly. But much happened in addition to that too. Jesus said metaphorically that unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it can’t produce fruit. Botanically speaking an embryo in a seed does not die before it germinates and grows into a plant. Death doesn’t produce life. But the point of gospel metaphor is resurrection. Old interpretations must give way to new ones. New ways of doing life must replace old ones.
One of my favorite quotations from James Perkinson is from his book White Theology: “A theologian—speaking of resurrection, in a body not bearing the scars of their own ‘crucifixion’? Impossible!” To be like our teacher, Jesus, in rising to life means embracing the things that our teacher taught and the ill treatment that comes from people pushing back against those teachings as well. So for all who have suffered push-back from teaching or living the values and ethics you have learned from Jesus of Nazareth, “The student is not above the teacher . . . It is enough for students to be like their teachers.”