Why do we hear so many stories about how a third grade teacher turned around a child, saved their life, gave them a passion for something that became their life’s work? Why do we see even the most spiritually experienced person we know go all dewy eyed when they mention and remember their mentor, the one person of all people who reached out the touched their souls, awaking the spark of their vocation and life’s work? But Jesus is our true Teacher. We know that Jesus teaches us the commandments of the new covenant, in him, and through the Cross. But perhaps we sometimes overlook what a good teacher he was and is. A manual for spiritual directors could be pulled from Jesus’ own words and actions towards those he is with, be it the sometimes dim Peter and the rest of the twelve, a foreign woman at a well or asking for healing for her child, Temple officials, crowds. Sometimes chiding, sometimes confirming, sometimes questioning and testing, and as a lesson to all of us in our interactions with spiritual seekers, firm, never yielding to what is expected, but focused on his Father’s will, and ultimately his will.
Today’s Gospel for Daily Prayer (Lk19:15-30), which appears in all three synoptic Gospels, starts with the little children, and, in fact, in Luke, they are specified as infants, babies. The disciples rebuke the parents. Are they acting as gatekeepers, bouncers at the door of a private club, or protecting their Lord, their own Teacher from the exhausting assault of the needy crowds? Children were loved and regarded, but so many children died that loss was always looming. And that background might add to the poignancy of the many who came to Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, even a Roman Gentile, to save a beloved child. Many parents came to have this strange but powerful magician/prophet/Rabbi bless, heal, lay hands on their babies. But the disciples didn’t seem to show much compassion for a mob of needy mothers and squalling babies. And Jesus teaches part one of two in this reading. You can’t receive the Heavenly Kingdom unless you come as a child. What? All those years of studying Torah for nothing? And “receive,” when we thought just following the law was the ticket to Abraham’s bosom?
So what did Jesus mean? What is it about children that makes him say this? Childlike naiveté, ignorance, powerlessness, the need to be taught. Jesus is challenging the normal order, again upturning it. A baby, perhaps even a worthless girl baby, is worthy of receiving the Kingdom. There is no one too small, ignorant, vulnerable, powerless. If we are lucky, we will come to be taught as little children. More often as rebellious teenagers. And it takes firmness and discipline to get over ourselves, and return to that innocent acceptance, which, paradoxically, also opens us to maturity, adult relationship with our Lord and our God, our Teacher. It takes true humility, especially for the powerful and educated. Yes, we slip back and forth, but his mercy is unfathomable, and try as we might to run way or turn away, or make him reject us, it won’t work. So Jesus the Teacher corrects his enthusiastic followers, and we can suppose that a lot of supper conversation centered on his disciples begging him to unpack that teaching. Did he? Or did he let them stew on it, meditate about it, pray over it, so that the change came from within those he loved and taught? Often less is more in teaching. Knowing the boundary is a skill we can learn from Jesus the Teacher.
On the heels of this exchange, in all three synoptic Gospels, a rich young man runs up and throws himself before Jesus asking what he must do to obtain eternal life. Only in Luke is the rich person identified as a ruler, one who can jump the line at the club, but ruler of what and from where we don’t know. That he is rich would have been apparent from his dress, and from his attitude. His need is his own, not for illness, not for a need of some family member or friend. He wants eternal life, and what is the magic word? Perhaps it is the sense of entitlement that prompts Jesus to draw him out as he did. First he puts him a little off balance, and offers a theological and spiritual correction. Don’t flatter me by calling me good when you should have your mind on God, who alone is good. And Jesus goes on. Do you follow the Law? Of course, since a child. And he certainly might have, and in his social position he could have studied with the best rabbis. But Jesus probes more deeply, challenging him to obey the spirit of the Law, which every good Jew knew since a child, a humble child, to care for the poor and needy. Jesus tells him to sell everything and give to the poor. By commanding the extreme action, he is challenging the young man’s desire. How serious are you? Again the spiritual director Jesus identifies the stumbling block and leaves this Very Important Youth to ponder, pray, work it out for himself, or fail to. And so the disciples appear astonished, although by now they should know that earthly treasures were not a goal for their Teacher. And we get this wonderful bit of hyperbole, the one about the camel being squeezed through the eye of a needle. And again a pivot. Are all the rich excluded? Who the can be saved? And a marker for the theology of grace alone. For a human it is not possible, but for God all things are possible.
And this shakes up Peter. His fear and pain are clear from his question. But we did give up everything. Was it worthless? Jesus now is a comforter. Don’t worry. Your actions and faith are seen and will be rewarded. He could have been harsher, and sometimes he was, especially with Peter. He could have called him on his lack of faith, his lack of loyalty. But he doesn’t. A word of support is needful, especially since in the next verses we will hear Jesus predict his fulfillment and death for the third time.
Don’t search for your worldly teacher. There are too many who use that authority for their own power, and not your growth. Wait, and in God’s grace, you will find that person. And don’t expect it to be a walk in the park. It might take a lot of ego and soul wrestling before you yield and start listening. Mentor and student should be a reflection of Jesus’ relation to his Father. Jesus is our Lord and God, Redeemer, but also our model of priesthood and spiritual teacher. And incarnate proof of how much God loves us and wants us to grow in our love towards God and God’s Kingdom, now and forever.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.