When I talk about Jesus as a wisdom master, I need to mention that in the Near East “wisdom teacher” is a recognized spiritual occupation. In seminary,
I was taught that there were only two categories of religious authority: one could be a
- priest or a
That may be how the tradition filtered down to us in the West. But within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was also a third, albeit unofficial, category: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being.
These teachers of transformation—among whom I would place the authors of the Hebrew wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs—may be the early precursors to the rabbi whose task it was to interpret the law and lore of Judaism (often creating their own innovations of each). The hallmark of these wisdom teachers was their use of pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables rather than prophetic pronouncements or divine decree. They spoke to people in the language that people spoke, the language of story rather than law.
Parables, such as the stories Jesus told, are a wisdom genre belonging to mashal, the Jewish branch of universal wisdom tradition. Jesus not only taught within this tradition, he turned it end for end. Before we can appreciate the extraordinary nuances he brought to understanding human transformation, we need first to know something about the context in which he was working.
There has been a strong tendency among Christians to turn Jesus into a priest—“our great high priest” (see the Letter to the Hebrews). The image of Christos Pantokrator (“Lord of All Creation”) dressed in splendid sacramental robes has dominated the iconography of both Eastern and Western Christendom. But Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not that interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him.
His message was not one of repentance (at least in the usual way we understand it; more on that later this week) and return to the covenant. Rather, he stayed close to the ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked timeless and deeply personal questions:
- What does it mean to die before you die?
- How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one?
- Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself?
These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.