Saying those words, “teaching to obey,” make me uncomfortable. Part of it is because I just feel hypocritical because I am not very good at the whole obeying thing. Telling someone else they should do it rings hollow.
At another level, the whole obey thing sounds so rigid, forced, and heartless. It sounds like there is no Jesus in those words. In fact, this absence of Jesus makes me think there is another way to read them.
What Jesus Teaches
In Matthew there are three major sections where Jesus teaches. The first is the Sermon on the Mount. Then, after some narrative Jesus offers what most call the missionary discourse. After some more narrative, Jesus tells an array of parables about the Kingdom of God.
What strikes me is that nowhere in these teachings does Jesus give us a list of things to do. The Sermon on the Mount involves a lot of Jesus revealing how simplistic checklist obedience largely misses the point. The missionary discourse lets the disciples know that people will persecute them. Finally, the parables seem far more interested in unveiling a different way to engage with the world than telling people what to do. So is there another way to read the word obey?
Teaching to Obey: The Checklist
In Matthew 19, Jesus comes across a rich young ruler. The man wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus uses the same Greek work to tell him to obey the commandments. The young man says he has, since he was a boy. Then Jesus tells him to give away everything he has to the poor and follow him. Because the man is rich he walks away.
If we take Jesus literally there, he wanted the young man to give away his fortune. That would mean poverty is part of what Jesus requires. But in next verses, Jesus declares it difficult, not impossible, for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. So wealth does not exclude someone, it just makes things more challenging.
So why did Jesus tell the man to give away his fortune? I believe Jesus was testing to see if he really understood the commandments. No doubt, according to some criteria, he engaged in all the right external behaviors. But if he failed to grasp the heart of the teaching, then he did not truly obey.
Teaching to Obey: Perspective Shift
Around the year 140 lived a man named Galen. He was a famous Roman physician, surgeon, and philosopher. He is also the first Roman writer we know of to speak positively of Christians. Galen noted that Christians used Jesus’ parables to shape their understanding of the world. Then he said, in doing this, they live lives akin to the greatest philosophers.
In other words, early Christians did not look for a to do list in Jesus’ teaching. That was not how they tried to obey the commandments. Rather they looked for a new way to make sense of the human experience. Creating a to-do list keeps Jesus’ teaching at arms length and controllable. Instead, they gained a greater understanding by standing under his words and allowing them to reframe their lives.
Here it is important that we draw a distinction between illustrations and metaphors. An illustration is designed to clarify an abstract point. If a teacher uses illustrations they say something and offer a story or example to help people understand. Illustrations help us cognitively grasp something. They are about the head.
Metaphors on the other hand, aim to create meaning. Metaphors are less interested in what you are doing, and more interested in how you are being. So if a teacher uses metaphors they say something and invite you to sit with it and soak it in. Metaphor is designed to affect the heart.
Author Kenneth Bailey, speaking about extended metaphors or parables, says, “it is not a delivery system for an idea but a house in which the (we are) invited to take up residence.” When we obey these teachings of Jesus, we look out the windows of this residence and ask, “How does the world and the human predicament look from here?”
How Disciples See the World
Let us go back to that rich young ruler. His wealth created the house he saw the world through. It was a house that kept him from discovering a new way of being in the world. In the language I use here, it was one manifestation of power that kept him from living by love.
I believe all of Jesus’ teaching invites us to take up residence and see the world from a different perspective. Doing that is what it means to obey Jesus. Then, as we obey, as we see the world differently, we start living by soul in a spirit of love. This brings us to the next question, “What did Jesus teach?”
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.