Who Will Teach Us?
Eight Sunday of the Year. Fr David Goodill considers the relationship between teacher and pupil.
Students tend to coin nick-names for their teachers, particularly for the teachers who are most eccentric or memorable. Such names express a variety of attitudes depending on the teacher, the student’s relationship to the teacher and the wider context. They mark the fact that the relationship between teacher and student is not an impersonal, transactional relationship, but one in which teachers and students get to know each other – normally over prolonged periods of time.
Contrast this with the kind of relationship you have with an accountant or a lawyer. It is not just the fact that such relationships generally involve only adults, but the more transactional nature of the relationship marks it out from the teaching relationship. This is not to say that lawyers and accountants are merely faceless bureaucrats; personal integrity is key to both professions and speaking to a familiar person who has proved trustworthy in the past is far preferable to being put on hold until an operator is available. Nor does it mean that lawyers and accountants are just in it for material gain: many care deeply about their work and those they help through it. However, professional relationships formed with lawyers and accountants do not generally depend on the quality of the relationship to the extent that the teacher-student relationship does.
If I know enough law I can dispense with the services of a lawyer (not generally recommended with modern complex and ever-changing legislation), but I cannot dispense with the need to be taught. Some people may have an ability to teach themselves certain skills, but even in those cases they do not start from nothing. Self-taught pianists have heard music played by others, and have normally witnessed the piano being played, so their self-teaching has some starting points.
It is not surprising therefore, that education is a key activity in human life. Forms of education differ across the globe, but every society needs teaching and education. Lawyers feature prominently in the Gospels, as do tax-collectors (I hope accountants can forgive the parallel, and also the ever-patient individuals I interact with at HMRC in my role as Provincial Bursar), but at the heart of everything in the Gospels we find teachers. And one teacher in particular: Jesus Christ.
Jesus tells his disciples that ‘the disciple is not superior to his teacher; the fully trained disciple will always be like his teacher.’ Christ, the Word of God, is the teacher who teaches all teachers.
All learning brings about a change in the person who learns. The deeper the change, the more interior the learning and the more it touches upon what makes us human. If I learn a skill, such as how to draw, a change has come about in me. This change, however, does not essentially change the kind of person I am. I remain the same old ungenerous and selfish person, only now I can also draw. The deepest and most interior changes involve who I am at the deepest level of my existence. This is why Jesus, echoing the wisdom tradition found in the First Reading from Ecclesiasticus, connects teaching with the interior life, ‘a good man draws what is good from the store of goodness in his heart.’ The point of wisdom literature is to help the reader bring about an interior change and for this we need a teacher we can trust. Therefore, the author of Ecclesiasticus begins by establishing his own credentials to teach, referring to his grandfather who developed a deep knowledge of the law, the prophets and the other books of the fathers of Israel.
The teaching of Jesus Christ is also rooted in the tradition of Israel, but its authority is ultimately founded upon his person: true God and true man. Jesus teaches us not only about how to become more deeply human, but also how to share in the life of God. Anointed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is the Wisdom of the Father, the Word made flesh, who transforms the words of those who follow him so that they are life-giving words, bearing fruit for the salvation of the world. Human laws and balance sheets will pass away, but the teaching of Jesus will remain for eternity, transforming those who receive it so that the student will become like the teacher, eternally sharing his life-giving wisdom.
Image: detail from ‘Hand Gesture and Book’ by MTSOfan