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THE MASTER IN THE BIBLE

Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Msgr. Gianfranco Ravasi

 

I. THE OLD TESTAMENT PARABLE OF TEACHING

We speak in terms of a "parable" because it deals with the description of a kind of journey that includes two stages: 1st Primacy of the theophany, that is, the Lord who is Master; 2nd Man who in turn becomes master, after having listened to God Master. (return to summary)

1. Primacy of the theophany

Absolutely, the point of departure is always grace. In the beginning there is the epiphany of God. In the beginning there is the divine Word that breaks the silence of nothingness and of man’s ignorance. "God said, ‘Let there be light’. And there was light." In the beginning there is this Word, radical and fundamental, without which there would be emptiness, nothing. No other word would resound. At the beginning there is this absolute presence of the only Lord and Master who is God.

St. Paul (in Rom 10:20) surprised us by a very beautiful saying of Isaiah: "Then Isaiah speaks boldly and says: ‘I was found by those who were not seeking me; I revealed myself to those who were not looking for me’." Man goes about his way and would have gone far into infinity, if on a crossroads the epiphany of God, his Word, did not appear. In the beginning then, there is the Wisdom of God. In the book of Genesis (1:3), there is precisely this statement: "God said." Or else in the New Testament: "En archŔ Ŕn ho logos, in the beginning there was the Word (par excellence)," the initial great theophany without which there is no teaching. Without grace our word does not exist; without the Word of God our words do not exist. (return to summary)

The (three) places of the theophany

Where and how does God reveal himself? Let us remember three places wherein the "lesson" of God, the first absolute "lesson" is offered.

1. The Word or lesson of God is manifested above all in the Torah (a name derived from the Hebrew root word jrh, which means "to teach"). It is the teaching by excellence, the God’s "doctrine" by excellence. Hence we must listen to the first divine lesson through the listening to the Law. The whole of Psalm 119 (118 of the Vulgate) is a grandiose, monumental hymn to the Word of God more than to the Law (Torah). Pascal used to recite it every morning; once, at least in the breviary of the Ambrosian rite, is recited every day, entirely, during the hours of the day. It is a continual praise, a kind of perpetual motion: not only is the makeup in 22 strophes, with an alphabetical play, but every verse must have at least one of the eight words with which the Word of God is defined. Well, this continual song of the Word of God is the celebration of the first, fundamental lesson that we must listen to, a lesson of life (it is so even today), not just a lesson of God’s mystery.

In Psalm 25 (verses 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 12) it is asked continually of God that, revealing his Word to us, He indicates the way. "I am the way, the truth and the life," Christ would say. With a small detail: in Hebrew, the term way, derek, has at its base perhaps a root of Cananean origin which means the sexual vigor, the vital energy. So, to say "I am the way and the life" could be expressed almost with one word: "I am the way." To indicate the way means also to indicate the way of life. Besides, the way in all cultures is a great symbol of life itself. In this sense the celebration of the way that the Torah offers us is the celebration, as Psalm 119 would say it, the torch that enlightens the steps of our existence (v. 105).

More, in Psalm 143:10 we ask: "Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. May your kind spirit guide me on ground that is level." We find here the two images, the two components: "Teach me to do your will," not only your mystery, but an efficacious mystery that acts in me. And then you shall guide me "on ground that is level", on the path of life.

2. The Epiphany of the Lord-Master appears in his salvific work, in his actions of salvation, as we read in Psalm 103 (verse 7): "His ways were revealed to Moses, mighty deeds to the people of Israel." By the law of parallelism, here what is described is no longer "my way," but "God’s ways." And what is God’s way? They are his works, his works of salvation, inserted in the inside of history. The Bible is God’s story and it is the celebration of the God of history, the Bible is a story of salvation.

From here follow some consequences of this fundamental thesis. The Hebrews called Moses for long with a name, morenu, which means "our master." And how is this "our master" represented? The Lord tells Moses, "It is I who will assist you in speaking and will teach you what you are to say" (Ex 4:12; cf. 24:12). And what would Moses do then? He would speak and would save. Hence, God also uses concrete teachers. Through his history of salvation he passes through us, although we are weak. Moses would have been the last to be chosen as teacher: he was stammering, he was incapable of speaking, he had in himself a physical defect: "Send someone else," (he excuses himself in Ex 4:13; and so would it happen in other stories of "vocation with an objection").

A second consideration. What then must we transmit, what must we narrate in our catechesis? What shall we teach? The reply is found in Psalm 78 (the second longest in the Bible, after Psalm 119), which we can entitle the way the Bible de JÚrusalem does: "The lesson of the history of salvation." What we must transmit and proclaim is not the remote and abstract God, the "God of the philosophers" (to use another famous expression of the Memoriale by Pascal), not the God of the wise, but the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, the God savior.

3. After the epiphany of God in the Torah and in history, the epiphany of God is manifested also in the darkness of the trial, in the darkness, in His silence. On this matter, two books of the Old Testament are especially interesting and meaningful: Qohelet and Job. One can see in them the revelation of God within silence.

They, however, do not give us the manifestation of the God-Master, which we find instead in a verse in the Deuteronomy (8:5): "…the Lord, your God, disciplines you even as a man disciplines his son." This image of master-father is very beautiful (these two aspects also coincide in the Proverbs: the master is also the father, the disciple is also the son). This master knows, among others, the path of toughness, a path that the disciple does not quite understand: "My ways are not your ways" (Is 55:8).

There is then, a paidŔia, to use a Greek expression, a purifying divine pedagogy. There is a divine word that disconcerts, in good and in bad. In Jeremiah (23:29) the Word of God is represented as a hammer that breaks a rock, like an ardent flame that burns, and consumes. Most often, in the Old Testament, the Word of God represents itself with "offensive" images. This takes place also in the New: the letter to the Hebrews (4:12) evokes the Word of God as a sword that cuts the surface, the skin, and penetrates even to the bones, to the marrow. There is then a paidŔia that develops in the darkness (a very beautiful and suggestive theme). We have to thank God, instead of being embarrassed, that in the Old Testament there exists a book like Qohelet, a book of crisis, of crisis of Wisdom: a teacher who no longer believes what he teaches and who perhaps no longer expects anything, but who nonetheless reflects – and also this is God’s Word – on this mysterious speaking-teaching of God through his silence, through emptiness. And yet it is meaningful that in the Old Testament there are pages like those of Job, where the protagonist curses. At that moment, God passes almost through the negation of himself. As Bonhoeffer said: God does not save us by virtue of His own omnipotence – as Lord and Master, as Lord –; God saves us by virtue of his weakness, by becoming brother to man in Christ, through his impotence, his own suffering. Speaking, however, of the teaching of the Divine Master through his silence and through trial, we have to remember that, also in that instance, God does not stop being the Master who saves, on the other hand, perhaps at that moment he is much nearer to man than before.

Hosea (11:3-4) expresses fatherly tenderness also in severity: "Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love…" Ephraim remains rebellious. But this father, even if his son does not understand, always keeps bonds of love, even when he punishes, like a father correcting his son. Related to this, there is a very beautiful image of the great Danish thinker Soeren Kierkegaard in his book, Timore e tremore, dedicated largely to Gen 22 (the sacrifice of Isaac). Soeren Kierkegaard uses this image which, among other things, is true in the Orient: the mother, when she has to wean her child, paints her breasts black so that the child would no longer want it and begins to nourish himself alone. At that instance, the child hates his mother because she takes away his life support and also of his pleasure (let us recall what psychoanalysis says regarding this matter); and yet he does not know that at that moment the mother, while separating him from her and it seems cruel, has never loved him so much than then because she makes out of him a man who could live in the world alone. She makes him a free creature (and how many mothers have not detached their child from their breasts, although not materially and they make him ever dependent!). And so: also in moments of great trials, we must never forget the mystery of God the Father and Mother. (return to summary)

2. Man, teacher

The man instructed by God becomes in his turn, teacher; he is sent as teacher. Here are three considerations on the matter. (return to summary)

a) The father to the child

The fundamental magisterium is that which passes through interpersonal communication, family catechesis, a relationship of love. We have very enlightening examples of this. In the book of Proverbs, the father continually says: "My son…" and he gives his wisdom to his son. In this case the teacher, the master, who is father, cannot but desire that the disciple grows. This is something that a domineering lord does not want because he is jealous of his intellectual supremacy. The father thinks, like John the Baptist (cf. Jn 3:30), "He must increase and I must decrease." And Chapter 31 (always of the Proverbs), with that strange close – the celebration of the wise woman – is probably also the conclusion of a didactic journey. This spouse is an ideal, perfect woman but is also Wisdom: the young man has become, in turn, a master, a wise man. Such ought to be our goal. We must disappear even as we teach others. We must see to it that the other is capable of growing up in the faith and in conscience, and then we could retire.

In Exodus 12, with the description of the Paschal rite, we find what the Hebrews do through the haggadah. Haggadah is the narration, which includes a dialogue between the father and the son on the meaning of the rites in order to arrive at the discovery of God’s act of deliverance. Here we see what could be the role of the teacher in the family, in the relationship of love: it is that of teaching freedom, of making known God who is the liberator, not him who imposes on you the mantle of lead of his norms, but he who points out to you the joyous path of his will, which is freedom and salvation.

Finally, Psalm 78, in its first ten or so verses offers us a suggestive representation of catechesis. What is the true ecclesial catechesis? It is to communicate continually, like that of the father to the son, from generation to generation, the great works of God, the great dynamic line of salvation within which we are immersed. (return to summary)

b) The priests-prophets-wise men

Among the masters, there also are the priests, the wise men, the prophets. We could offer a lot of information on this kind of teaching. It is enough to cite as an example 1 Sam 3. The priest named Eli, Samuel’s master, is the spiritual director par excellence, who does not take the place of the disciple; but he teaches how he must discover his vocation, whose is the voice that calls him at night.

Another model, very interesting from the point of view of inculturation, would be that teacher who wrote the Book of Wisdom about 30 B.C. He introduces himself as Solomon, the absolute wise man. The book of Wisdom is the attempt to rewrite the great lesson of Israel with the philosophical categories of the Greek world, in another cultural horizon. Paul is the greatest example of this work of cultural mediation, of inculturation, of the re-writing of the Semitic message of Christ in new coordinates, in new ways.

In Nehemia 8, the dominating personality is Esdra, the priest, who draws his lesson from the Word of God. He is a significant teacher because he reveals to us how we can become teachers of the Word of God ourselves. In the episode, we could identify seven "stars," that is, a constellation of seven components that are the representation of this magisterium of the word:

1. To read the Word of God , "by distinct passages," so to say. Regarding reading, there would already be a whole lesson to make in our times when reading has become even more difficult, ever less practiced. Our children see, but they do not read. If ever, they listen. The Hebrews do not call the Bible "scriptures" like us; they call it "migra", which means "the reading"; it is of the same root, the word quran, the Koran, is the generous "reading."

2. To explain. It comports exegesis. "Without the penetration into the words, into the meaning of the words, how can I understand the Word?" this is a statement by Maximus the Confessor, a Palestinian mystic, born at the Golan heights, of a Samaritan father and a mother who was a Persian slave. Born in Jesus’ land, he would have an end which is emblematic also the teacher: his tongue and right hand were cut, the two elements of the word and of action, in order to punish him who is a proclaimer of the truth of the Gospel. Maximus the Confessor, who perhaps is the last of the Greek Fathers, said then: "If you do not know the words, how can you know the Word?" Explain! Let us start launching serious studies of the Word, against the pentecostal-mystifying temptation, against certain charismatic forms (One who says: "Take the Word and read it how it sounds and practice it," could lead into fundamentalism).

3. To understand. Biblical understanding, as Maritain rightly said, is a "connaissance savoureuse", a delightful knowing. To know the Bible, as well as to "to love" it, is precisely a circular, symbolic knowledge.

So now, three "star" words on the first line: to read, to explain, to understand. The other four are, instead, along the existential line.

4. To listen. "The heard, they lent their ears." In the Bible, the same verb "shama" points to both "listening" and "obeying." Hence, shema’ Israel Is not only "listen Israel," but also "adhere". "AdonÓi elohŔnu adonÓi ehÓd" (the Lord is your God, the Lord is only one) is not only a knowing of the intellectual type, but it is the discovery of a relationship (cf. Dt 6:4ff). With this, we have "You shall love Him with all your heart…" You shall love comes immediately after listening. Thus in Psalm 40, it is said literally (verse 7): "Ears open to obedience," like that of the slave; I am your slave, my ears are open to obedience, in the sense that I completely adhere to you.

5. Eyes are filled with tears: the listeners weep, that is, they are converted. The word of God makes you weep over your sins. Here is another element produced by a true lesson: it perturbs consciences; the Word of God pierces the soul, otherwise it is nothing but mere information. The ninety-plus writer Julien Green affirmed: "If I should summarize everything I have written, I would express it with this statement, ‘For as long as one is perturbed, one can be at peace’." For as long as there is this restlessness, the Augustinian kind ("inquietum est cor nostrum"), then one could be at peace.

6. The hands bring portions of food to the poor. The lesson I receive from the Word of God urges me to go towards the miserable, to over the bread of the Word of God as well as the real bread.

7. The celebration, the liturgy of the Tabernacles, the third Hebrew feast. Which is to say that the last lesson is had in the liturgy.

Hence, seven words: to read, to explain, to understand, to listen, to weep, to give, to celebrate. Such is the trajectory into the teaching done within the ecclesial community through the various ministries of proclamation. (return to summary)

c) Global pedagogy

Biblical pedagogy is a global pedagogy. It is not a process that is merely intellectual. Let us take a brief philological note. LamÓd, to teach, is the fundamental verb of the teacher. Better still, lamÓd does not mean to teach, but "to learn." Curiously, however, in the intensive form, limmed, it becomes "to teach." The same root word does not make any distinction between to learn and to teach. And this establishes a circuit. The true teacher is one who also learns, and the true disciple is one who, in the end, knows how to teach. If the circuit is closed, one does not have a true magisterium. The teacher, who is not attentive to the disciple, is by his nature, condemned to solitude, to the tower of ivory of his own thinking, but he shall not leave any trace. For him who is used to speaking often in public, one of the fundamental, also technical, components is to see and understand if the surroundings is filled with resonance, if the audience is listening. Otherwise, he could go on talking, but the others do not dialogue. To teach is to dialogue. Even if the other is silent. One must be aware of entering into the inside of communication, thanks also to the questions raised by the other. Oscar Wilde said: "Everyone can give an answer; it takes a genius to raise real questions." And it is very true. Only geniuses raise the great questions, which advance knowledge. And speaking of questions, we, also graphically, express them not with an exclamation point that is a straight line, but with something which is twisted, hence something that wounds, that scratches, that makes one bleed.

Another recurring word in the Biblical pedagogy is jarÓh: jarÓh-torah, which refers to a teaching, which is "way and life," as we have already seen.

More: jasÓr, from where the word musÓr is derived, means, "discipline," that is, the severe, ascetic commitment to know. For one to be truly masters, one must have the patience to study hours on end, to labor.

And, lastly, there is the very jada’ which means "to know" and implies all the dimensions, the symbolic globality of the Biblical teaching. It includes the intellectual aspect, the affective aspect (sentiment), the volitive aspect (to will), the effective aspect. "To know" indicates even the sexual act. It is because one also knows through passion and action, with the communion of bodies; one knows by sharing life with others, by action, thus together building a project.

Concluding the Old Testament parable of teaching we need to state something that is a bit paradoxical: the purpose of the teacher is to make himself useless. We already mentioned it but now we have to state it more strongly by taking recourse to the eschatological dimension. At the end of time, teachers shall cease to be because there shall be one inner Teacher. There is an intense passage in the gospel of John (6:45) that quotes Isaiah 54:13: "It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me." There shall no longer be mediators. "It is the Father who speaks and you come to me," says the Lord. The text of Isaiah in Hebrew (John quotes the Greek in the translation of the LXX) says exactly: "All his children shall be disciples of the Lord." This is a beautiful definition of the eschatological community: all shall be "disciples" of the Lord.

More relevant yet is Jeremiah’s oracle (31:31-34) on the "new covenant," the better known of all the prophetic oracles, which contains also the longest quotation of the Old Testament in the New, in Hebrew 8:8-12. How shall the great, perfect covenant of the new Sinai? Who shall be the moment wherein we shall have a community that shall be completely in communion with God? Here is the response by Jeremiah: "I will place my torah within them, and write it upon their hearts. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen": there shall no longer be teacher, priest, prophet, the wise man who should tell others: "Know the Lord." "Because all, from least to greatest, shall know me." (return to summary)

Continued: Jesus, Divine Master

return to summary

 

           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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