(9/12): Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 - 8:1 • Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-9 • James 3:1-12 • Mark 8:27-38
Last summer I talked about the Matthew version of this passage, Counter-Intuitive on Aug 24, 2020. This week, the Mark version is paired with Isaiah and James, who talk about teaching, in the distinct but inimitable styles that each is famous for. Then Jesus proceeds to give a master class in how to teach. Well, who could resist the chance to reflect on teaching, with such a set of material!
The Isaiah reading is set sometime after the Hebrew people were marched off into exile. His description of himself as knowing how to sustain the weary with a word, makes perfect sense in terms of the Babylonian exile; he was teacher to a weary and discouraged people. Look at what happens to him though, for his efforts: insults, being spit upon, getting hit, and even people tugging at his beard. Apparently, not everyone was interested in being encouraged.
When I taught remedial math at the community college level, most of my students were uninterested in my well-meaning, encouraging words. Once I began asking them what they saw as their problem and how they planned to get through the semester, things changed. They could overcome their own sense of helplessness and engage the challenge a little more. Acknowledging their responsibility for learning in turn had an impact on me. I was able to be more curious with them about how I could meet my responsibility to them. I started wondering and sometimes asking, "What would be useful?"
One resource available to every teacher is her own experience. I had struggled with my share of hard math problems. For his part, Isaiah understood only too well the helpless feeling that his people were up against. Sustained by his morning prayers, he had found a way out of helplessness. As he put it, the Lord God wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. Every good teacher walks this demanding path.
Unlike Isaiah, who seemed to be faced with a dearth of leadership, James warned against too many people becoming teachers. Teachers will be judged with greater strictness (v. 2). Then and now, taking on the role as teacher sets a person up for criticism; it's easier for the rest of us to focus on the teacher than it is to come up with our own views! Often, though, the role of teacher is unofficial: occurring whether we intend to take on the role or not. Throughout life – and across many species – we learn continually from one another. Sometimes, species survival depends on passing on what we know.
It's how to pass it on that's the problem. As James so clearly says, the tongue can be dangerous and destructive! Lashing out solves nothing. In the Mark passage, Jesus models mature ways of using language – asking good questions, talking about his own views and asking others about theirs.
What's a good question? To begin, good questions denigrate no one. They are constructive, not reactive. When not too hard, they stir up genuine curiosity (For instance, Jesus asking, Who do people say that I am?). When well-framed, they ask the person to define her own position (Who do you say that I am?). With effort, a person wrestling with a good question can build her own understanding, eventually able to describe herself in an I-position: what I think and what I'm going to do.
In the Mark reading, Jesus soon turns to another question: What does it profit anyone, to gain the whole world and lose one's soul? What, indeed. I'm reminded of a prayer for healing asking for that victory of life and peace enabling you to serve… (Book of Common Prayer p. 456). Life and peace don't come easy; they are available to those who have struggled with Jesus' question regarding profit and loss, found their answer, and acted on it. Not easy tasks – but they round out the subject of how to teach. A good question stirs interest, prompts clarity within self and with others, and ends in action.
Morning: What's a question I'd like to get clearer about?
Evening: When did I manage not to lash out, finding a good question or taking an "I-position" instead?
Psalm 116:7 Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.