Jesus' Ministry and TeachingA closer look at his parables, aphorisms, and apocalyptic message about the coming Kingdom of God.
Did Jesus preach, as best we know? And if he did preach what kinds of things did he preach about?
When Jesus speaks, the major verb that is used in the gospel accounts is "to teach...." He teaches his disciples, he teaches in the synagogues, he teaches the crowds.... What is he teaching? Well, we have again a complex variety of things, which don't quite hang together entirely. We, of course, have notions of repentance.... He is asking Jews to repent of their sins, to expect the end time or the Kingdom of God, that somehow that we need to improve our ways so as to prepare ourselves for whatever God has in store for us. That is one clear notion of preaching on his part, which we might say is a preaching for repentance. But we also have him teaching verses from the scripture, which he quotes, verses from Isaiah or other passages, and again dealing with the Son of God, whatever that means exactly, referring again, apparently the Messiah, or some equivalent redeemer figure of the end time. It's hard to make sense out of all these different things together.
We also of course have the parables, which seem to be a kind of social commentary on the world of Galilee. We occasionally meet in these parables the land owner and the tenant farmers or the master and the slaves, which may be veiled or not so veiled social commentary....
We put all these different things together, it's not a simple case where we can say Jesus came and preached X, as if somehow that X is clear and consistent and unambiguous. We have different messages that are ascribed to him in the gospel text. And especially once you come to Jerusalem, and we have Jesus confronting the priests of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple scene, it's hard to figure out exactly what all of this means. The only common denominator seems to be the sense that the end of the world is at hand, or the end of history is at hand....
What scriptures was Jesus teaching from?
In the first century of the common era, Jews possessed a collection of sacred books, the books that we will come to call the Bible or Christians will come to call the Old Testament. Jesus apparently knew many, some, all of these books. The synagogue service on the Sabbath would consist of communal group study of various collections from these books. Jesus in his teaching referred frequently to the Laws of Moses, by which we mean the Pentateuch, the five books of the Torah, and refers frequently to the prophecies of Isaiah or passages from the Psalms. These are the most widely quoted books in the New Testament. The important thing to remember of course is that Jesus is not reading the New Testament, he is not preaching the New Testament as a book. These books do not yet exist.... Whatever it was that Jesus spoke, he was speaking words of his own, he was speaking words of common wisdom, or he was referring to or explicating verses from the Hebrew Bible, specifically from the five books of Moses, from the Torah, or more especially the prophet Isaiah or the book of the Psalms. These will have been the stuff out of which Jesus will have created his teaching and his preaching. And it is only later of course, much later, that we begin to have the creation of books that you and I call the gospels, or you and I call the New Testament. This is a product of, these are the products of the late first and early second century of our era.
JESUS' TEACHING: THE KINGDOM OF GOD
The core of Jesus' preaching is the kingdom of God. And the difficulty is for us to hear that term as 100 percent political and 100 percent religious. Not one, not the other. In the first century those were inextricably intertwined.... "The kingdom," if you use that expression in the first century, would have meant the Roman kingdom, it meant the Roman Empire. When you talked about the Kingdom of God..., you were making a very caustic criticism of the Roman Empire, and you were saying that its system was not the system of God.
Well, that seems to kind of limit the relevance of what Jesus had to say, if part of his preaching was considered [directed at] the Roman Empire; is it more universal than that, in your opinion?
By talking about the Kingdom of God, but by focusing it on the Roman Empire, what Jesus was focusing on was the systemic injustice, which are really the normal ways that life is run. The Roman Empire was no worse than any other empire we've ever had. And in fact, what we are criticizing there is really the normal life of discrimination and oppression and persecution and hierarchy, all the normalcies of life are what are being criticized. It applies to us; if Jesus was here today, we are Rome.
I might say that the core of his preaching are these sort of enigmatic sayings of his.... When you get back to his doctrine, if that's the right word, what do you arrive at and what you make of this?
The sayings of Jesus are very often enigmatic, only because of their lack of context. If, for example, you say "the last shall be first and the first shall be last," that can mean almost anything taken out of context. It can be a banal cliche, or it could be a call to rebellion. Put back into the context of an occupied country, a Jewish homeland occupied by the Romans, the urbanization of lower Galilee, these statements such as "blessed are the destitute" take on an acute religio-political edge and are not quite so enigmatic as they may sound to us.
Jesus is most famous, I think, for parables and aphorisms. And both of them are really ways of teaching ordinary people. Now, if you read them in the New Testament, it might take a minute to read; I imagine them as maybe an hour long interaction between Jesus and an audience, who are probably talking back to him, and interrupting him and debating with him and disagreeing with him and fighting with him. And the parable is a way, really, of getting them to think. It's a way of provoking people to think for themselves....
[For example], Jesus tells a parable about somebody who takes a mustard seed, plants it in the ground, and it grows up to be a great tree, or a bush at least, a weed, though, in plain language. Now, imagine an audience reacting to that. Presumably the Kingdom is like this, and you have to figure out, "What's it like? You mean, the Kingdom is big? But you just said it's a big weed. So why don't you say a big cedar of Lebanon? Why a big weed? And besides, this mustard, we're not sure we like this mustard. It's very dangerous in our fields. We try to control it. We try to contain it. Why do you mean the Kingdom is something that the people try to control and contain?" Every reaction in the audience ... the audience fighting with themselves, as it were, answering back to Jesus is doing exactly what he wants. It's making them think, not about mustard, of course, but about the Kingdom. But the trap is that this is a very provocative, even a weird, image for the Kingdom. To say the Kingdom is like a cedar of Lebanon, everyone would yawn, say, "Of course." It's like a mustard seed ... "What's going on here?"
Is this [style of teaching] unique to Jesus?
The parables are unique only in a very limited sense, in that the primary teaching of Jesus is not taking texts out of the Hebrew scriptures and explaining them, blasting them, commenting on them. What he is doing is telling a perfectly ordinary story. And using that as the major teaching. "The Kingdom of God is like this." Now you have to think, well, I hear the story, but how on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? That's your job as the hearer. So it's open to anyone. And that's, I think, the point of the parable.
So right from the start his teaching depends on interpretation?
If you teach in parables, you give yourself to interpretation. If you really want to tell people what to think you preach them a sermon. If you tell them a parable then you're leaving yourself open, inevitably, to interpretation.
THE MINISTRY OF JESUS
From a strictly historical perspective, then, we don't really know all that much about the ministry of Jesus. It might have been very brief, depending on which gospel you read, it might have been as short as only a few months or as long as three years, but if we take the smaller version of the story, if we take the more limited historical perspective that Mark's gospel offers us, for example, Jesus seems to have started preaching in the Galilee. He's associated with cities, smallish cities like Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, market towns, fishing centers and so on. And he deals with some farmers and some city folks but that's about all we hear....
His public ministry, though, seems to have focused especially around the working of miracles, casting out demons, healing people. He was known as a miracle worker. He travels around some but mostly in the Galilee. And, at least in Mark's gospel, he never even thinks of going to Jerusalem until the very last week of his life. So the geographical frame of reference of Jesus' life, at least in Mark's gospel, is limited to the Galilean context for the most part. And that's very different than John's gospel which has Jesus in Jerusalem from a very early stage. Now from a historical perspective, these two stories don't mesh together very well, and we have to be very careful about what we say about the life of Jesus....[I]t's probably better to be safe than sorry and say "What's the least we can say? What can we really know?" And then work from there in talking about how the stories developed.
It sounds as if, when you come right down to it, you really can't know very much about it.
We don't know much about the life of Jesus in the final analysis: We know he was a public figure, we know he gathered some kind of a following, we know he eventually went to Jerusalem and there he was arrested and executed. The rest of the story is filled by the gospels by talking about his life as a significant life. But the minimalist perspective of the historian has to say, it's a life that we don't know in detail until his death.