It has been another week of shootings on both coasts of the US, in the Southwest, and here in the Midwest. Other forms of violence seem to be proliferating as well, at least according to news reports. It is generally agreed that the US is in the midst of the greatest drug crisis in its history as the country is flooded with opioids. Clearly, while the stock market zooms ahead, things are not all going well. I sometimes wonder, did they ever? Or were we just not paying attention?
Jesus never tired of insisting that the measure of our love of God is the measure of how we treat one another, especially how we behave towards those whom the world dismisses as worthless, just useless bumps on the road to personal success and satisfaction. Last week, in contrast with a good deal of political discourse this year, we heard the voice of God urging us to respect and assist orphans, widows, and refugees, and raging with anger when we neglect and abuse them. God cares how we conduct ourselves – singly and collectively, especially when it comes to those who are most vulnerable.
Today, we hear the same message in the readings from the last of the Hebrew Scriptures and the earliest of the
Christian Scriptures – the Book of Malachi and St. Paul’s first Letter to the Christians of Thessalonica. And if we fail to hear the voice of God in the warnings of Malachi and the admonitions of Paul, we can’t easily mistake the serious tone in Jesus’ voice. It’s mostly about teaching.
As a teacher, if not exactly a rabbi, I have to wrestle with their words. But Jesus is right. We have only one true teacher, and the rest of us have a lot to learn.
Despite prevailing attitudes, education is not merely a training period to prepare young people to enter the marketplace. It is the sole means by which one generation passes to the next the values, hopes, ideals, and knowledge that sums up the collective experience of ten thousand years of civilization and culture. Christian education is just another way of talking about handing on the faith.
In Christian scripture the words for “teacher” and “teach” appear about 200 times, and “teacher” is one of the few titles that Jesus not only permitted people to give him, but used it of himself. And not just “teacher,” but “the Teacher.” And we, all of us, are his pupils. Not by accident, one of the earliest Christian works, a treatise on Jesus by St. Clement of Alexandria, was called, simply, “The Pedagogue” — the Teacher.
When we turn back to the first reading in today’s liturgy, from the last book of Hebrew scripture, we hear another
word of caution, a warning not to people looking for teachers, or who ought to be, but to teachers who were failing in their calling:
You have turned aside from the way,
And by your instruction have caused many to falter…
Those who teach not merely falsely but badly deserve not a blessing, but a curse: “I have made you contemptible and base before all the people.” Teaching is a sacred responsibility, not a role to take up lightly or a task to be fulfilled sloppily. And in fact, just because we are Christians, followers of Jesus, we are all teachers to some extent — parents above all. So it’s wise to listen to what Scripture is saying here. God is showing us what a real teacher is.
St. Paul is comparatively gentle and positive in his first letter to the young churches, but the theme is unmistakably the same: how he shared not merely the gospel, but his very self in instructing these new Christians. Even more to the point are the three verses omitted from the reading for some reason:
You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our behavior to you believers; for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. [1 Thess. 2:10-12]
The Word of God presents us with two images of the teacher, then. First, the true teacher as a revered minister of the word of God. That is why Jesus’ warnings, which actually echo that of Malachi, are meant to be sobering. For what could be further from the model Paul describes and Jesus exemplifies than that of the inflated big shot, the self-important man or woman of learning who imposes ideas but fails to inspire or enlighten? Who fails to serve, but demands to be respected and exalted?
So both learning and teaching are important. As Christians, we all have to be engaged in what can only be a life-long quest – first learning how to become more truly human and then just perhaps to teach as Jesus taught.
For a Christian, education is not just the prelude to a lucrative career. It transmits the very substance of what it means to be a citizen, a colleague, a woman or man of moral and intellectual integrity, a human being, an adult follower of Christ. John Dewey summed it up well a century ago when he said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” His younger contemporary, H. G. Wells, added a note of urgency way back in 1915 that is even truer today: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” [The Outline of History, ch. 40.]
This morning, the following excerpts were found in the readings for the day in the Divine Office:
“Peace is not the mere absence of war or the simple maintenance of a balance of power between forces, nor can it be imposed at the dictate of absolute power. It is called, rightly and properly, a work of justice. It is the product of order, the order implanted in human society by its divine founder, to be realized in practice as men hunger and thirst for ever more perfect justice…
“Peace here on earth cannot be maintained unless the good of the human person is safeguarded, and men are willing to trust each other and share their riches of spirit and talent. If peace is to be established it is absolutely necessary to have a firm determination to respect other persons and peoples and their dignity, and to be zealous in the practice of brotherhood. Peace is therefore the fruit also of love; love goes beyond what justice can achieve [From the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes, n. 78)].
The stakes we play for are hardly small. Today they are greater than ever before in human history. Let us pray, therefore, that we will be able to pick up and pass on the light and love of learning that inspired and blessed those who prepared our way: our parents and teachers, perhaps especially those who have answered the call to become catechists — to instruct the young in the faith. May we all come to know wisdom and instruction, understand words of insight, receive instruction in wisdom, righteousness, justice, and equity, that prudence may be given to the simple, and knowledge and discretion to the young…