We are all formally students for some time in our lives, and it is best to remain informal students throughout our lives, for there is no point at which there is not something we can learn. At the same time, most of us function as teachers at many points in our lives, some of us professionally but most of us casually, guiding and directing people in ways that might even escape us. We teach by how we live, how we treat people, how we respond under stress, how we reprimand a child, how we help a neighbor, as well as by more concrete and direct ways of teaching.
Some of us, by training and vocation, teach religion and theology, and it is those of us engaged in this vocation who must always remain students in our area of expertise, for Jesus says: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Mt 23:9–10). This teaching is directed at all Christians, but it is a difficult teaching for those called upon to be teachers and instructors, for it is easy to forget that in the things of God we are always students.
It is telling, and especially humbling for biblical scholars, to remember that Jesus did not choose his apostles from among the biblical interpreters or experts in Jewish halakha (roughly equivalent to canon lawyers today) but from among the fishermen. How could fishermen be teachers in the Bible and Jewish law when they had not been formally trained? What did they know that the experts did not?
What the fishermen knew, or were willing to encounter, was the only true subject: God. The unschooled fishermen knew Jesus, spent time with Jesus and were willing to learn from Jesus what they did not know. This is why, as Ben F. Meyer wrote years ago, “professional interpreters appear to differ markedly from commonsense readers and, on technical aspects of interpretation…they do. In other respects, however, e.g., encounter with the text, report on encounter, critique of truth and value, the superiority of the professionals is random and unreliable.” It was not technical expertise that Jesus sought in his apostles but the willingness to encounter the Word of God as life-changing and life-giving.
It was the encounter with truth that led the students, the crowds of ordinary people in Galilee, Judea and elsewhere, to throng around the teacher Jesus; they responded as people hungry to learn the deepest reality about God and themselves. So, “when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The religious experts, the scribes, are mentioned, though it seems they are not present, as a contrast to Jesus’ authority. Perhaps the experts hung back, wary of how Jesus’ teaching might affect their livelihood or authority, or because they disagreed that Jesus’ authority was grounded in the Scriptures or God.
Yet, Jesus’ final act in the Capernaum synagogue is the demonstration of the divine ground of his teaching authority, for “just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’” Jesus healed the man of the unclean spirit, and the people were again amazed, referring to this action of Jesus as a “teaching”: “They kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’” It is God’s presence and power that is the lesson not only to learn but to encounter.
It is necessary to have teachers in all areas of knowledge, and this includes theology and biblical studies. Expertise and properly ordered authority are essential for all fields. But ultimately we are all students of the one teacher, whose authority is ordered to our salvation and joy. From this school we never graduate; this teacher is always guiding us. This education is perfected for our final purpose: to know God.