I sometimes cringe when I hear Jesus referred to as a great teacher, because I know that title is often used to say he was “merely” a great teacher, and he is so much more. But he was a great teacher. And like Jesus, the best teachers in my life led by example. Think about the best teachers you have had. You might remember the subjects they taught, but you probably remember more the way they taught, their mastery, their skill, and most importantly, their character. Maybe some were a bit disorganized, some a bit quirky, but they loved seeking the truth, were passionate in helping you to grow in knowledge, and they were humble about it. They were people who I wanted to imitate. I am convinced that to become a great teacher one must believe and embody the twin ideas that teaching with love is greater than teaching with mastery, but teaching with true mastery is also teaching with love.
Consider the following scene. Jesus and the disciples are in the upper room for the passover. Jesus knows he is going to his crucifixion and that his disciples are generally clueless. In the Gospel of St. John 13:3-17 (ESV) we read:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
This famous passage is full of things to ponder, but I want to zero in on something specific. Notice the lesson Jesus wants them to learn: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” One could say this is the logos of the lesson. It is simple, straightforward, and profound, and from the context of the upper room discourse this is a message Jesus really wants them to get. But now look how he got to that message. Jesus lays aside his outer garments and begins washing their feet. This is not only outside the expected behavior of a teacher, but it also produces a striking image for them. And not only that, it produces a tension that must somehow be reconciled in their minds. Peter’s response most likely is just the verbal expression of what they were all thinking. “How can this be?” “This is not right.” Jesus creates a dilemma his disciples need resolved. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?” That is exactly what they are wondering. This tension creates the proper context for his message: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” He then lets them in on his teaching process: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” But Jesus also knows they still will not truly understand until later: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”
Think how powerful the image of Jesus washing their feet must have been in their minds, especially when they began to link it later with the crucifixion. When the Holy Spirit opened their eyes and helped them to remember all that Jesus said and did, this scene must have stuck out. Whenever they thought of their Lord they would remember that he was the one who washed their feet, who then told them to do such for each other, and to know that this upending of the normal order of things is at the core of the kingdom of God. Jesus says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” That is powerful.
How then did Jesus teach them? He showed rather than merely told. In other words, he taught them mimetically.
We observe that Jesus:
- connected his lesson to prior knowledge. That is, when he took off his outer garments and began washing their feet he relied on their cultural understanding of servants and masters. They knew what he was doing even if they did know what to think of it. And they felt the tension, so they needed a resolution.
- gave them an example or type. That is, he created an image of a master serving his servants. Imagine the scene, they had to sit there and watch him wash their feet. Individually they each had to physically experience their feet being washed by their teacher. This must have been a powerfully visceral example.
- compared this type to other types. That is, he called attention to how this new type contrasted with what they knew to be the normal order of things. They could see it, but he made sure by connecting his example to what they thought they knew was right. The comparison must have been startling. By calling it out, Jesus made sure they understood that seeing the distinction was critical.
- expressed the idea. That is, he told them directly and simply the point of the lesson. He gave them words they could not forget: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
- applied the idea. That is, he told them to do as he had done, to be servants of each other. Later he would give them the greatest image of application they could ever hope or fear: his death on the cross.
Imagine Peter, years later, facing into his own crucifixion for the sake of the gospel. Imagine him looking back on his experiences as an apostle, all that he had gone through up to that point, all that he had preached and all that he had suffered, and then he remembers that evening sitting in an upper room when his beloved lord stripped himself of his outer garments and washed the disciples’ feet; how his master and teacher got down on his hands and knees and became their servant. Peter must have remembered how Jesus looked, the color of his eyes, his voice, his expression, and his simple and elegant message. And he must have remembered his own confusion, his emotional response, and then his wonder at what it meant. Facing death, just as in life, Peter would have confronted the question, “What type of man will I be?” Fortunately in his mind and soul Peter would always have the indelible image of Jesus the master as servant, an image given as a gift━a gift he was able to receive, in part, because Jesus had connected that critical lesson to prior knowledge, then gave Peter an example or type, then compared that type to other types, then expressed the idea clearly once Peter was ready, and finally told him to apply the idea in his life.
Jesus was a great teacher. He taught with love and he taught with mastery. And he demonstrated both his love and his mastery by laying down his life for the sake of the world. That we would all become that kind of teacher. I am convinced some of us already embody a great deal of that type. My wife does so more than I. Regardless, all of us can do no better than to imitate Christ.