It's that time of year again when many dinner-table conversations revolve around new teachers and new courses at school, college or university.
What's the new prof like in the history department? Does the TA at the medical faculty follow in the footsteps of the master professor? What pedagogy is the theology professor following?
Teaching is the art of leaving vestiges in students, and all good teachers or professors must ask what vestiges they wish to leave in their students. Good and effective teachers have usually had excellent teachers themselves. The highest compliment we can pay to our own teachers is to try to imitate them or incorporate their methods into our own lives.
Allow me to look at a master teacher in the Christian tradition -- and offer some suggestions about why his method was so successful. Let's consider Jesus of Nazareth as a master teacher.
If we gathered together all of the images he used in the parables, we would have a reasonably detailed sketch of daily life in ancient Galilee. Surprisingly, Jesus uses a large number of farming images, drawing many illustrations from agriculture and the care of cattle. Jesus notes how farmers may fatten calves for a feast, how manure is used as a fertilizer, and how bumper harvests may call for extra barns. He offers no suggestions about weed control and the removal of rocks, but is aware that poor ground can reduce the results of seeding.
In the Gospels, Jesus knows that donkeys and oxen need to be taken every day to water. At times they fall down wells and need to be rescued, even on the Sabbath. Jesus notes that cultivating the soil and adding fertilizer might revitalize a barren fig tree. Piling up manure heaps, gathering crops from the fields, separating wheat from darnel, minding sheep, plowing the land -- all these are part of his preaching and teaching.
Jesus also recalls how people organize ceremonies and behave at feasts. He has watched his neighbours buying sparrows in the market and putting patches on torn cloaks. He speaks about the administration of the law, the right recipe for mixing yeast with flour, poor building practices, financial investments and over-indulgence of the wealthy.
Interestingly enough, history, geography and current world affairs hardly surface in Jesus's preaching. He is not stuck in the past. Apart from a brief remark about paying taxes to Caesar and a comment on some victims of Pilate's brutality, Jesus hardly even suggests that he is living under Roman rule. Jesus was no social revolutionary. He denounced injustice by confronting it with love. His good common sense, his extraordinary attentiveness to the situations and things of ordinary life bonded him with his followers. They recognized him as one who "walked his talk."
His rootedness in God and his sheer love of humanity were open invitations to all those who lived otherwise. He offered an alternative vision of compelling beauty and goodness to those around him.
If we hope to confront the evils and injustices of our day with ingenuity, creativity and perseverance, we have a very good model in the person of Jesus, who taught us to "think outside the box" of our narrow world and religious views. Jesus taught his followers there is much more to this life than meets the eye. Such a pedagogy still makes for good teachers today.