Jesus as Teacher of Moral Transformation

I have often wondered why Evangelicals tend to imitate the teaching style of Paul more than Jesus, even though Jesus was clearly a popular and profound teacher. What would it mean to teach more like Jesus? Here are some reflections on Jesus as Teacher by Nicholas C. Burbules:

As with Socrates, too, these disputatious dialogues [that Jesus engaged in] often seem to be directed very little toward changing the mind of the interlocutor (which may not be possible anyway), and more toward influencing the audience to the dispute – including, of course, the readers of the text. Jesus certainly believed that some hearers were not open to his moral instruction, and he did not waste much time with them.

Jesus seems to assume that a necessary precondition must exist in order for teaching to go forward: without an active, interested response and an openness to moral reflection, teaching – in one of his most-repeated parables – is like casting seed upon barren soil (Matt 13:4-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:4-8).

I think it is clear that Jesus believed that moral conduct depended on an internal commitment and interest in being good.

Jesus seemed to begin from a different assumption, namely, that there are actual barriers to being good, and without addressing those barriers, the effect of moral exhortation, didactic instruction, or arguments will be nil.

One of the most difficult of these barriers, and a particular concern for Jesus, was the attitude of moralism and self-righteousness itself.

Smugness and moral superiority are moral barriers because they foster a sense of complacency, and because they inhibit the ability to empathize with or forgive others – two crucial dimensions of morality, for Jesus. Similarly, arrogance and egoism tend to encourage selfishness, or cruelty. Resentment and bitterness tend to justify blaming others for one’s failings, or making excuses for one’s misconduct. Misery and hopelessness tend to produce moral passivity and fatalism.

Hence, for Jesus, moral teaching requires a transformation in these underlying traits and attitudes: self-righteousness, complacency, arrogance, egoism, resentment, hopelessness, must be unlearned before morality can take root.

While there is certainly no one-to-one correspondence of social groups and these personal traits and attitudes, it is not hard to see that people in certain situations, like poverty, tend to be more susceptible to hopelessness and resentment; those who are more privileged and affluent tend to be more susceptible to complacency and self-righteousness; those in positions of unquestioned power tend to be more susceptible to arrogance and egoism.

The ambiguity and indirectness of figurative language is perfectly suited to Jesus’ purpose: it attracts interest, it sparks an attitude of curiosity; but it also requires an effort for completion.

The process of trying to transform moral character, in the way I have been describing it, has several elements. 

  • The first is that it is aimed at achieving a transformation of moral character
  • Second, moral teaching cannot be moralizing
  • Third, many deep moral insights are gained only indirectly, through reflection on complex and puzzling cases that do not yield simple truths or directives.
  • Fourth, Jesus’ use of proverbs, allegories, paradoxes, parables and other figurative forms reflects, on the positive side, a desire to cultivate in listeners a breadth and flexibility of moral imagination – and, on the negative side, a willingness to see many listeners misunderstand or not understand at all.

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