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

by Msgr. Gianfranco Ravasi



Let us go to the New Testament, in the Gospels in particular. The title given to this section, "Jesus, Divine Master," allows us now to build a true and proper profile of the figure of Jesus as didÓskalos. Let us go over two different moments in order to compose the image of Jesus, didÓskalos. (return to summary)

1. The portrait of Jesus Master

In the New Testament the term didÓskalos is used 58 times, 48 of which are in the Gospels, mostly applied to Jesus; and the verb didÓskein, to teach, 95 times two thirds of these are use in the gospels and also in this case, prevalently applied to Jesus. Hence Jesus is the "master" par excellence of the Christian community.

This portrait could be sketched in three features.

1st. Jesus is called rabbi. Two passages among many, like for example Mk 9:5 and 10:51. He is a rabbi who speaks in public, like the teachers were doing in Israel: in synagogues, in squares, in the temple. Jesus is a teacher surrounded by mathetÓi, that is, by the disciples; he has a school.

Furthermore, Jesus uses the techniques of teachers, that is, he also is equipped with pedagogical tools. Certainly, he has something original. There is above all a curious aspect we shall now underline. Unlike the other rabbis of Israel, Jesus chooses his disciples. It is the exact opposite of what the rabbis were doing, who behaved like the preachers of Hyde Park: they began speaking in the squares and those who were convinced followed him. Jesus does the opposite. Scholars speak of a "break" by the historical Jesus from the world/environment and the culture wherein he was a part. In his Last Supper speech, Jesus told the disciples: "You did not choose me, I chose you" (Jn 15:16).

2nd. Jesus is an authoritative teacher. Mark’s statement is to the point (1:22): "He taught them with authority, not like the scribes." He is a teacher stands not with the power of authority, but with the authority of authoritativeness. Another passage from Mark (12:14) is very significant: "Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion. You do not regard a person’s status but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth." This is a stupendous portrait of the true teacher, who does not bend his knees, who does not teach according to convenience. In this regard, how many are the false teachers! "You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth": once more, way and truth united into one, and concretely way and life united together.

3rd. The root of his teaching is transcendent. Two passages are emblematic in this sense: Jn 8:28: "I say only what the Father has taught me (didÓskein)." And Mt 11:27: "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." The teaching of Jesus is the teaching of the mystery of the Father and so, it is a transcendent teaching.

Here then are some of the essential features of the portrait of Jesus master. In summary: Jesus is a historical Teacher who uses the techniques of world wherein he is a part (the parables, for example), but he has something different and original, like the choice of disciples. Furthermore, he is an authoritative and free teacher; finally, he is a transcendent teacher who teaches a truth that goes beyond the boundaries of human knowledge and originates from a revelation. (return to summary)

2. The seven qualities of Christ Master

In order to remain faithful to the symbolism of numbers and to the explanatory system frequent in the Bible, we can summarize into seven elements the qualities of Christ the Master in action. With these seven features (naturally, exemplified), we intend to present the modalities with which Jesus teaches, as his message shows them.

1st. Christ is teacher of the fundamental proclamation of the kingdom. Christ is the perfect proclaimer of the substance of the Christian message. As an example, the first preaching of Jesus is enough. Naturally, it is edited according to the theology of the Synoptics and of the catechesis of the Christian origins. We find it better formulated in Mark (1:15). The contents of the proclamation of Jesus are four elements: two according to the theological dimension and two, according to anthropological dimension.

a. "This is the time of fulfillment," better yet, according to the Greek plero¨n, time has reached its fullness. Christ affirms that he came in order to give meaning to history. Just as the title of a book of Conzelmann on the theology of Luke, Christ is die Mitte der Zeit, that is, he is the central point, the center, the pivot of time. Affirming that "time has reached its fullness", Jesus comes to say: "I give meaning, with my words and with my action to all the secular affairs of the salvific actions of God." Time, which is composed of so many different elements, of so many disseminated actions, receives a knot of gold, which keeps it together and gives meaning to it.

b. "The kingdom of God is at hand." The Greek term Únghiken (from the verb eng¨zein) deserves a certain attention because it has various meanings: first of all the verb is in the perfect tense hence it points to the past: it means that the reign of God has already been acted upon, has already taken place, restored in Christ. The perfect tense in Greek, however, indicates to an action of the past whose effect lasts into the present. Hence it means that the reign of God is still in action today. Furthermore, the verb, semantically, indicates something that refers to the future: it is near, it is about to take place. And so it is underlined that the reign of God embraces all the dimensions of the history of salvation. We belong to today and yet we participate in a past event whose effect dynamically acts today, in the expectation of fullness, that is of that nearness which is always sin action and which will be completed only at the end of history. The kingdom of God means God’s project of salvation that runs across history. These are the two dimensions of God’s action that Jesus Master proclaims: "time has its fulfillment in me," and "it is time that everything is to be radiated from God’s kingdom," that is, by the action and by the project of joy, of freedom and of hope that Jesus has come to proclaim. As a consequence:

c. MetanoÚite, be converted. It is the reaction that the believer, the disciple must have: change mentality and life after having listened to this lesson.

d. PistÚute t˛ euanghelýo, believe in the gospel, so it is said in Greek. Re-transcribing the Hebrew, because in the Bible the verb to believe, amen, supports the preposition be-, and hence it indicates a "leaning on" (literally "to be founded on"): let your lives be founded on the gospel.

Thus, in this first great lesson of Christ, Master of the proclamation, we find also the contents of our proclamation: we must proclaim the kingdom. And this proclamation generates conversion and faith; it must be received in faith and in life.

2nd. Jesus is a wise teacher, who uses the parable, the symbol, the narration, the paradox, the striking image. Here reading the Gospels is enough: there is no need to add much else. Concerning our squalid, dull, modest preaching that passes over the heads of the faithful, Jesus spoke, as how one scholar has said, by passing from the feet, from the hands, from the dust on the earth. Let us, for example, consider Luke 11:12: "What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?" Jesus speaks from a living context: in Palestine there is a scorpion – the Palestinian white scorpion, poisonous – large like an egg, and nests among desert stones. Starting from this image, Jesus builds in a figurative manner his lesson on the love of the Father. If you ask him for an egg, he will never give you a scorpion that poisons you. Another example: Jesus must represent his own death and his salvific role; theologians would use (and rightly) all the categories of soteriology; but then the faithful would remain unsatisfied. Jesus, instead, starts with the grain (Jn 12:24): "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." Dying and entering the sepulchre, compared with the death of the seed, to which follows the stalk and the ear, expresses the Paschal fruitfulness of Christ’s death, and also of the believer.

His parables are exemplary: how can we explain love better than how the parable of the good Samaritan does: And do it above all with that shifting of accent, from the objectiveness of the neighbor: "And who is my neighbor?" to subjectiveness: "Is it he who has behaved like a neighbor?" that establishes a radical difference in the Christian moral vision. Likewise the parable of the ten virgins for the eschatological tension. The parables of Jesus start always from the concrete story, from life: sons in crisis, gatekeepers at night, labor relations (the parable of the workers of the vineyard), corrupt judges, weather forecasts, the woman of the house, fishermen, farmers, moths, birds, lilies, etc. This manner of speaking brings the Word of God into the inside of workaday life and making it fruitful.

A rabbinical saying goes: "A grain of pepper is better than a basket of watermelon." Wordy teaching, dull, colorless and tasteless speech is like the basket of watermelons and it does not stand comparison with the grain of pepper, which puts in taste in a mass of food. Jesus used the images of yeast and salt. He teaches extends to us a communication that is flavored, lively, incisive and "narrative." We must recover, based on Jesus and the Bible, our capacity for communication, the great talents that Christian tradition has had in proclaiming the faith through the story, the image, beauty, aesthetics. And here, comes to our aid the great lesson of von Balthasar and the great Christian authors of the past, like Augustine, who had all the rigor also of formal language when this was necessary, but who used to make theology in terms of "you," through dialogue: a theology-prayer, that knows all the wealth of human communication and which is an extraordinary adventure of the spirit. The world is rich, history is continually creative, our language always turns to reality. There is a verse of Borges, an Argentine writer, that says: "el universo es fluido y cambiante – el lenguaje rÝgido": the universe is fluid and changing, language is rigid, so that we need to exert efforts to make language, above all religious language, ever warmer, more mobile. And Jesus was also a great teacher in this.

3rd. Jesus is a patient teacher, who adjusts himself to our slow journey, that is, of our learning slowly. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is presented to us as a "progressive" teacher who slowly brings his disciples to the light by passing through the darkness of forms of human resistance. First, he leads them to the recognition of his messiahship ("You are the Christ," Mk 8:27-29) and then he unveils for them the fullness, at the end of the gospel, when the pagan Roman centurion, having arrived at faith, says: "Truly this man was the son of God" (15:39). But how long a journey one must make! The journey of the cross. Jesus, who is a "progressive" teacher, makes us pass from darkness to the light in a disturbing manner, but patiently and slowly. Chapter 9 of John (the man born blind) illustrates this journey with the Christological titles used in progression. It starts with "a certain man named Jesus" and arrives at the last saying: "I believe, kyrie, credo, O Lord". By now, comes the discovery of Jesus as the kyrios par excellence, that is, like God.

4th. Jesus polemical teacher. In Lk 11, but even more in Mt 23, Jesus appears to us also as a polemical, provoking and indignant teacher. His seven "woes" or seven "maledictions" (which are, by the way, used according to a prophetic genre as in Is 5:8ff) are a testimony that the true teacher is not afraid of denouncing evil, as the Baptist did as well: "It is not lawful!" (Mt 14:4). The true master runs the risk of unpopularity as well. Christ was condemned also by his words, which were whip’s blows. The Master’s words knows not rage, not anger, which is a vice, but was indignant, which is a virtue: Jesus has often revealed to us his message through a world that is fire, just as he often said: "I have come to bring a sword, to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…" (Mt 10:35). This aspect should be upheld also in our religious communication. It is not contradictory with respect to the first: we must be patient, but also, when necessary, we must introduce the word that disturbs, the word of the prophets. We must say, "Yes, yes. No, no; everything else comes from the evil one" (cf. Mt 5:37). And as a reaction (right) to a rhetoric or an emphasis of the past (the great preachers who shall come!), we must not lose the dimension of the word that attacks, not adulterated (cf. 2 Cor 2:17; 4:2), not merchandised; we must recognize that the Word of God is often offensive, so they say.

5th. Jesus was also a prophetic teacher, in the authentic sense of the word. To be a prophet does not mean to be able to see ahead, to guess the future. The biblical prophet is who instead interprets the signs of the time. He is the man of the present, he who brings to realization the Word. In this regard, the speech of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth (Lk 4:16ff) is exemplary. He takes the Word of God from Isaiah; he reads it and he comments on it. But how? "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." There we have the actualization! The Word of God is incarnated in an event, in person present! The whole of the New Testament is in this line. The Apocalypse, which is often smuggled in as the horoscope of the end of the world, is, instead, a lesson for the Church of Asia Minor during an internal and external crises and persecution. The Church of Laodicea, for example (cf. Rev 3:14-22), generates Christ’s nausea. It is a very strong image expressed with the verb emÚsai, to vomit, in order to indicate Christ’s nausea towards a lukewarm community. Well, the Word of God to that church comes with the function of giving a meaning, of indicating a goal, a purpose. The Apocalypse in fact does not teach the end of the world, but it indicates the purpose of the world. It is not so much as the representation of destruction, but of the goal to which we are directed. The prophet teaches where we ought to walk while we are in history, in the present. Thus comes the definition of Jesus according to Lk 24:19) (in the journey to Emmaus): "Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people." He was a prophet strong in works and in words: this is the prophetic Jesus master.

6. Jesus, master-Moses. With a paradoxical expression, Luther said: Jesus is the Mosissimus Moyses; the Moses to the nth power. The reference is to the Discourse on the mount, which is the fullness of the torah: "Jesus went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began edýdasken, to teach them, saying…" (Mt 5:1ff). As is evident, the Discourse of the mount is a lesson, and it takes place on a unhistorical mount (Luke instead, according to a note more attentive to history, locates the discourse on the plain, a "farmland"). For Matthew, it is the new Sinai. This lesson marks the start of the "Christian Pentateuch. Jesus does nothing but brings to fullness the torah’s message: his is a message that does not introduce a law limited in its sequence of commas, articles, norms, but a law that tends towards the infinite. Jesus teaches radicalness: "Be perfect…," not like a saint, but "like your Father in heave is perfect" (Mt 5:48). And this is the Christian message: an infinite journey in the infinite mystery of God. There never is the point of arrival; we always go beyond in order to enter into God. The teaching of the true Master, of the true Christian Moses, is bound to a continual "discontentment," to a systematic outdating; one must always go further. It is the exact contrary of a certain teaching of ours very often founded only on good sense, with a message that could be the minimum common denominator of all religions: a generality, a vague solidarity, a vague sentimental faith in God. But the Mosissimus Moyses is radical. Teresa of Avila stated two observations on the matter: "Preachers today no longer convert because they have too much good sense and hence they no longer have the fire of Christ." And concerning prayer: "O Lord, deliver me from foolish devotions of the saints having long faces." Hence: we must go back to the proclamation and the radical commitment of the Mosissimus Moyses.

7. Jesus is the supreme teacher, he is the Divine Master. How did the prophets of the Old Testament proclaimed their message? They declared: "Koh ‘amar Adonai: The Lord says," that is, I am the mouth of the Lord. Jesus took this phrase, but he deformed it in an almost blasphemous manner: "Eg˛ dŔ lÚgo hymýn:" "I say to you;" "in the past, it was said… but I say to you." An effective, imperative, extreme word. One decisive word face to face with evil; a word that challenges the times, an eternal word. And it is in this sense that we have to comprehend the saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life." It is a supremely "blasphemous" statement, because it arrogates everything that belongs to God. Even more, it is a world so divine that it continues to resound through the Spirit that he sends us within the Church and of individuals, through the centuries.

John reports (14:26) the words of the Jesus’ Last Supper on earth: the Father shall send, in the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit, "he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you". Who then is the Divine Master who continually works within us now, in the Church and in individuals and in the community" He is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in the Christ’s name, in order "remind." Biblical memory is not a pale evocation, it is not a commemoration of a national holiday, but it is the living, working memory, the celebratory and effective memorial. (return to summary)

Continued: The teaching Church

return to summary


           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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