Ever notice how certain people seem to fill a room with their presence? They simply walk in and every eye turns their way. Sometimes this magnetism is due to an individual's athletic prowess or stunning appearance. For others, it's their ability to produce astounding wealth.
Growing up, Bill Gates was probably ignored in most settings – but not today. When Gates appears on the scene, people notice. Money magazine in May 2002 revealed that the Microsoft titan had amassed a fortune in cash: forty billion dollars, to be exact. To help us get a handle on that sum, Money explains that it's enough buying power to acquire Ford, Exxon, Mobil and Wal-Mart combined. Enough to purchase four space shuttles or to write a check for the entire U.S. airline industry – twice! Or he could use the money to buy every professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey team in America. Love him or hate him, Gates is a jaw-dropper because of his financial achievements.
Long before Michael Jordan amassed a financial empire on endorsements and advertisements, he was wowing audiences with his aerial acrobatics. My son still has a poster of His Airness above his desk. In the photo, Jordan is suspended in midair, hanging precariously between the foul line and the basket. He hovers with his eyes at rim level, arm stretched above his head gripping a basketball at the moment before he slams it through the net. In the background, the audience is transfixed, sharing one expression – awe. Hundreds of mouths hang open as MJ performs his superhuman display.
Sometimes sheer physical size draws attention. When we wanted a good laugh as kids, my friends and I would watch professional wrestling. Thirty years ago it hadn't achieved the near-X-rated status it boasts today; it was just plain dumb. We laughed hysterically at characters like George "the Animal" Steele, who slobbered and drooled in front of the camera, and Toro Tanaka, whose pre-game ritual included throwing salt around the ring – salt he would later rub into the eyes of his unsuspecting victim.
We snickered at most of this charade, eagerly devouring bags of potato chips and sloshing down cans of pop. But suddenly we became silent, and our sneers gave way to expressions of wonder. There he was, and he was unbelievable.
His name was Andre the Giant, a seven-and-a-half-foot, 450-pound humanoid stuffed into a pair of wrestling tights. Each pant leg was the size of a sleeping bag. His head was as big as a microwave oven. This was the closet thing to Goliath we had ever seen. A sports magazine picture of this behemoth showed his hand cupped around a cola can – a can visible only through the cracks between his fingers.
Soon the fun would begin. A hapless wannabe would enter the arena to challenge the giant, and after just a few moments Andre would toss him around like a rag doll. The crowd was divided – and so was our fan club. Half wanted Andre to win; half cheered for the smaller David. But regardless of whose side we took, it was never boring when Andre was in the ring.
The list could go on – star athletes, business tycoons, entertainment divas, rock superstars. These are the people whose first names are part of our everyday vocabulary – Arnold, Oprah, "the Donald." And love them or hate them, we can't simply ignore them. They don't get lost in the crowd; no one yawns when they enter the room.
Encountering the Provocative Teacher
Despite all the fanfare generated by famous stars and athletes, no one ever caused jaws to drop like Jesus. And no one ever divided a room more quickly than this prophet from Nazareth. It was not his wealth or size or physical ability that people noticed; he didn't even have a permanent home. Certainly "he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him/ nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2). His redemptive power and grace, his authoritative teaching and nature-defying miracles, his unceasing love and abounding courage, turned heads and stirred deep emotions. His presence was unmistakable. People either loved him or hated him – but they never ignored him.
And neither can you.
Many people have read Jesus' biographies in the Gospel accounts of the Bible, and they are particularly enamored with his teaching. If Jesus was anything, he was a provocative teacher. Some have tried to discount his claims and soften the raspy edge of his unnerving and passionate remarks. But it cannot be done without warping his message and ruining the picture of his true character.
"Much of the history of Christianity has been devoted to domesticating Jesus," says Andrew Greeley, "to reducing that elusive, enigmatic, paradoxical person to dimensions we can comprehend, understand and convert to our own purposes. So far it hasn't worked." I couldn't agree more. Regarding Jesus' sayings, Greeley comments that they all "seem vague, slippery, disturbing and dangerous. Jesus is as disturbing now as he was in his own time: as troublesome, as much a threat to the public order." Disturbing, provocative, enigmatic.
Not exactly the Jesus many of us grew up with, the cute Jesus frolicking among the sheep and handing out goodies to his kids like grandma with a jar of homemade Christmas cookies.
Don Everts, in his compelling and earthy book, "Jesus With Dirty Feet," describes the utterly unique presence and impact of Jesus as he bounded across the stage of world history in the first century A.D.
He was nothing like anyone had ever seen. There was something so clear and beautiful and true and unique and powerful about Jesus that old rabbis would marvel at his teaching, young children would run and sit in his lap, ashamed prostitutes would find themselves weeping at this feet, whole villages would gather to hear him speak, experts in the law would find themselves speechless, and people from the poor to the rugged working class to the unbelievably wealthy would leave everything … to follow him.
Jesus' teaching was … provocative.
Provocative. The English word has its roots in the Latin provocare, which means "to call forth." To call forth action, response, thought. Similar in scope is the word educate, from educare, which means "to lead out." If we would describe Jesus' teaching with terms like these, we might say he was "leading his students out" –- out of timidity, complacency, falsehood and self-absorption – and "calling them forth" to action. Jesus called followers to experience a new way of life in the kingdom of God: a life of love, community and wholeness.
With Christ as his model, Parker Palmer has argued, "To teach is to create a space where obedience to truth can be practiced." Obedience is simply the process of aligning oneself with God's reality. The word literally means "to listen from below," implying a humility toward learning. Jesus, we might say, was a master at creating learning environments (spaces) in which truth was revealed so that it could be encountered, processed and practiced – in a word, obeyed. It was never Jesus' intent to simply comfort or entertain his students. His Sunday sermons never left hearers saying, "Nice talk; I like the way Jesus told that story about the shepherd boy and the little sheep. Of course, his message did run a bit long this week."
Not a chance. When Jesus was speaking, the rooms split into two groups – those who longed to hear him again , and those who wanted to run him out of town. His message portrayed a ruddy realism, the kind that fishermen and tax collectors and centurions could understand. Inspiring … convicting … provocative.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (Matthew 7:28-29)
Thus, the people were divided because of Jesus. (John 7:43)
Let's look closely at this provocative teacher, this disturbing and heart-rending communicator. But first, a caution. It can be tempting to simply dissect Jesus' words, much like the religious and political elite of this day. Of course, it's okay to begin there, to pick his teaching apart, slice his words into pieces with our exegetical scalpels and scrutinize them under a literary microscope. But if we stop there we fall prey to an old trap – gathering knowledge to satisfy our curiosity or worse, harnessing information to be used as a sword for intellectual jousting matches with friends or critics. We may win the war of words or congratulate ourselves on our ability to think deeply, but in reality, we lose either way. We will find ourselves forever parsing the message yet never encountering the messenger. I have been there – and it is a cold, stale place to be.
In a New Testament class in seminary, we were studying 1 Corinthians 13, the "love chapter." The substitute professor that day was caught off-guard by a question, and soon we were off on a rabbit trail, miles away from the point of the passage. "What are the tongues of angels, and what do they sound like?" the student asked, referring to verse 1. For forty minutes students offered a variety of possibilities based on their personal study of the text. There were seven scholarly views on the subject, if I recall correctly, and we debated every one of them. I found myself sucked into the controversy. When the class ended, the irony struck me. How foolish. No one knows what the tongue of an angel sounds like. That's not the point. 1 Corinthians 13 is about love. Yet I and others had become clanging cymbals, each of us clamoring to prove our point while ignoring the love we had been called to embrace. We overlooked love, and never encountered the Lover.
So I have a challenge for you. Try to approach Jesus' teaching by reaching beyond the purely analytical toward the conversational and even the transformational. Ignore the minutiae. Courageously ask, "What is my response to this? How do I react when Jesus teaches this way? What questions do I have for him? How does this teaching provoke me to action, anger, sadness, frustration or perhaps awe? Do I find myself moving toward Jesus, or turning away? In either instance, why?"
If you authentically engage in dialogue with his story and his words, I suspect you will find yourself encountering the real Jesus. After all, he didn't just bring a message – he became the message. Or as Eugene Peterson translates it, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14 "The Message").
As you read the stories of Jesus in the Bible, be aware that a few jaw-dropping experiences may lie ahead. Don’t try to prepare for them; it will spoil the adventure. Just be present, available and attentive. In certain moments, perhaps when you least expect it, his words will leap off the page, prodding and provoking, calling you to act or to choose. "He who has an ear, let him hear" (Revelation 13:9).
Bill Donahue (Ph.D., adult education) is vice president of small group ministries with the Willow Creek Association, based in South Barrington, Illinois. He teaches at several seminaries, and has written and edited many small group studies, including the Interactions series, the New Community series and the Bible 101 series. Donahue's books include "Leading Life-Changing Small Groups", "Foundations", "Parables and Prophecy", and, with co-author Russ Robinson, "Building a Church of Small Groups", "The 7 Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry" and "Walking the Small Group Tightrope."