One very common teaching technique used by ancient rabbis (and even to this day) is to use what is around you as metaphors or examples. Unlike Christian universities where students sit in a building at their desks, ancient Jewish rabbis would take their talmidim (disciples) through the world and use real examples to teach about God. This is the way rabbis taught in the first century in Galilee. A rabbi would almost never make an example of something and it not be right there for his audience to look at. That may sound silly to you, but ancient Jewish culture was very eastern in nature, in which information comes in pictures (as opposed to western culture which attains information through abstract ideas). So this is just part of the culture that the picture had to be there for the point to make an impact. This is epitomized in the verse:
“Consider carefully what you hear!”
The Greek here beautifully captures the Hebraic element of Jesus’ original saying because it says literally “Look at carefully what you hear!” How do you look at what you hear? If the information comes in pictures, then it’s possible. In this post we’re going to look at what we hear.
One easy example of this was Jesus’ teachings about worry.
“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! […] Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”
–Luke 12:24, 27,28
Have you ever sat and looked at the birds and wondered why don’t reap or sow? Try it sometime and I guarantee you’ll feel rather silly. Why? Because it’s a silly idea, and Jesus used this to his advantage. Of course the flowers and birds don’t worry! They’re insignificant! And yet God takes care of them? Wow, I feel really silly for worrying about [insert your worries here].
They Oughta Toss You In There!
At the end of Matthew chapter 17, we find Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum. There is a short narrative about Jesus and Peter paying their Temple Tax, and then it says at the beginning of chapter 18:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
And Jesus, like the masterful rabbi he is, uses a real life example. He calls a little child to him and says that they must become like little children. I think that this verse here is another striking indicator of the age of Jesus’ disciples. I have heard many sermons about how Jesus told those old fogies that they needed to become like little children, but that doesn’t seem nearly slap-you-in-the-face enough for Jesus. Why? Because it makes sense and an older and wiser person can see that (next time there’s a sermon on this, look around and all the old people will be nodding). But what about a group of teenagers? Try telling a sixteen year-old that he needs to become like a five year-old. They’d be insulted! I can see the objections now: “Jesus, are you kidding me? My little brother is five…come on!” Now that’s Jesus.
But it gets even better than that! The next thing Jesus says should send chills down your spine and here’s why. The rock near Capernaum is a very hard basalt, which is horrible for making houses and other structures out of. All the homes in Capernaum that archeologists have dug up from the time of Jesus are all unusually small, and it’s simply because it was too hard to make large houses out of that basalt. If you wanted anything bigger you had to haul the stone in from somewhere else, and that cost alot of money – something only the Romans could afford. But what is basalt good for? Apparently, making olive presses, and Capernaum became olive press central. What Michigan is (maybe was) to cars, Capernaum was to the olive press. They’ve discovered tons of brand-new (never been used) olive presses in Capernaum that were left seemingly on display to be bought before the Romans came through and destroyed the town during the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 – 70 A.D. Archeologists have also found olive presses from Capernaum in all the nearby towns.
Furthermore, from Capernaum you can see the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The Jews at the time called the sea or any big body of water “the abyss”. That was were the devil lived, they reasoned (this is for another blog post, but if you are curious you can check out Luke 8:30-33 and Matt. 14:26 where the sea is associated with demons and ghosts). So Jesus, in Capernaum, with an olive press probably in sight, and the Sea of Galilee probably in sight, continues his faith lesson to his talmidim:
“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
That big round stone in the above picture? That’s a millstone. So it’s almost like Jesus said “it would be better for him to have one those those [pointing to the millstone] tied around his neck and to be drowned in there [pointing to the Sea of Galilee]!” Talk about a powerful image! Can I prove that a millstone and the Sea of Galilee were in sight when he said those words? No. But does it make sense, from the standpoint of rabbinic teaching methods? Yes, and certainly it makes the picture that much more real.
You Can Say to this Mountain…
There is one more I’d like to go over in this post, and that is from the last week of Jesus’ life, and one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible regarding prayer. In Mark 11:12-14, Jesus passes by a fig tree and curses it (a remez to Jeremiah). When they go back the next morning, Peter notices that it’s withered and points it out to Jesus. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach his disciples a lesson, using the things around him, just like any rabbi would.
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
When Jesus made this statement he was probably passing over the summit of the Mount of Olives because they were coming from Bethany to Jerusalem (see the previous verses that describe the location of this fig tree). Just like in ancient times, on a clear day, you can see Herod the Great’s mountain fortress, the Herodian (or Herodium), which is close to Bethlehem (8 miles away). Herod was a very paranoid man, and always thought someone was out to get him. He had most of his family killed because of his incessant paranoia. Another thing he did was to build multiple fortresses from Jerusalem to Idumea, because being an Idumean (Edomite), he reasoned the Jews would try to rise up and kill him. So he built himself an escape route all the way back home.
The Herodian (left) was the first and greatest of these fortresses (Masada was another one he had built for this purpose). The Herodian was built on top of an artificial mountain that Herod had created specifically for him. According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other “like a woman’s breasts”. Herod paid thousands of workers (not slaves, yes he was that rich) for many years to demolish one of the hills and level off the other. He built his massive and grandiose palace-fortress on top of the remaining hill, which consisted of a ring of three concentric walls with round towers at the four corners. The dirt that was left over from demolishing the other hill was then dumped over these walls to form one large, steep hill that Herod could control entry and exit to. This was literally a mountain that had been moved!
Also from the Mount of Olives, on a clear day you can see the Dead Sea is way off in the distance, about 20 miles away. With these things in mind, look at to the words of Jesus again and try to imagine what his original audience saw when he said those words. Can you imagine the wide eyes of those twelve talmidim? To them, the Herodian represented the epitome of the evil oppression that was over them and their nation. The first thing to take away from this is that Herod had literally built a mountain and now Jesus is telling them that if they pray and believe, they can do even more awesome things than that! The second thing, and much more impactful (in my opinion) is that Jesus is telling them that if they pray and truly believe, they can dismantle the evil in this world and toss it into hell (the sea)! Your earnest prayer and belief, he tells them, can remove even the epitome of evil from this world! Of course, don’t get impatient when you don’t see your prayers answered immediately. How long did it take to built the Herodian? Over fifteen years. It took a long time and alot of people to literally move that mountain. When your prayers aren’t answered overnight, just remember that it takes time and people to move mountains.
I hope that through this study you have seen that Jesus used real objects when he taught his disciples and that understanding them can make a very large impact on how we understand his teaching. It’s not a large impact insofar that it changes the meaning, but rather one that makes it more personal, more of a call to action, and more of a slap in the face – and sometimes we all need a spiritual slap in the face. I encourage you to look for more of these as you read through the Gospels.
Peace to you,