If the church is Jesus’ great legacy, you might think he would talk about it more. But don't make any unnecessary conclusions. Jesus talked about a new community forming around him. He just didn’t talk about it like Christian churches would after he was gone.
Who did Jesus talk like?
We can learn how to listen to Jesus by observing how he delivered his message. Pay attention to the details. Jesus' favorite topic was the “kingdom of God.” A third of his recorded sayings in the Gospels are in parables. He launched his ministry by picking a band of disciples to follow him. What do those details tell you? Only one category of teachers we know from Jewish history used parables constantly, focused on God's kingdom, and gathered disciples: Jewish rabbis.
Jesus’ call, “Follow me” (Matt 4:19), is standard practice for a rabbi. “Lech aharai” (literally, “walk after me”) is a technical term in Hebrew for becoming an itinerant rabbi's disciple. Even his origins in the Galilee put him n this social role. The most famous rabbis of Jesus’ day were from Galilee: Johnanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Dosa, Abba Yose Holikufri, Zadok, Halaphta, and Hananian.
The remarkable similarities between Jesus and other rabbis caused Brad Young to conclude Jesus was: “a Jewish theologian… better understood in the synagogues of the first century than in the churches of today” (The Parables, 27). Since the data justifies this conclusion, we need to enter into the conversation in first-century synagogues to listen better to Jesus. What we will find is both deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching (Part 1) and the distinctives in his message (Part 2).
Rabbis demanded commitment. Since studying Torah rivaled the most important activities a person could do in this life (Mishnah, Peah 1:1), students prioritized discipleship. Honoring one’s mother and father did not take precedent over following your rabbi. Jesus used the same paradigm for his disciples.
Jesus demanded nothing less than the average Rabbi. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and himself as well, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). Peter understood the requirements. That’s why he left his wife behind to follow Jesus around Israel. That’s why he could say: “We have left everything to follow you” (Matthew 19:27; Mark 10:28; Luke 18:28).
The Mishnah makes the priority of rabbis over family quite clear (unless your family members are rabbis!). Here is how the reasoning goes:
“When one is searching for the lost property both of his father and of his teacher, his teacher’s loss takes precedence over that of his father since his father brought him only into the life of this world, whereas his teacher, who taught him wisdom [i.e., Torah], has brought him into the life of the World to Come. But if his father is no less a scholar than his teacher, then his father’s loss takes precedence…. If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must first ransom his teacher, and only afterwards his father—unless his father is himself a scholar and then he must first ransom his father.” (Mishnah, Bava Metsi’a 2:11)
Jesus’ teaching makes assumptions. He assumes you are in the conversation. Because he wasn’t the only rabbi offering God’s take on the matter. Some of his sayings assume the standard meaning of the day, both when he agrees and disagrees with contemporary rabbis. That’s why we don’t know how to interpret a number of his sayings. We overlook his assumptions because we assume the universal nature of his comments.
Here is a case-in-point. Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2 gives basic rabbi advice: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For you will be judged the way you judge.” Without knowing the conversation, you might think Jesus undermines all forms of discernment. You could conclude: we should not point out sinful behavior or make moral judgments because Jesus said: “Don’t judge anybody or anything.” But that is not the point.
Jesus was simply giving basic rabbi advice. The fundamental collection of rabbinic teaching in the Mishnah, the book of the Fathers (Avot in Hebrew) gives the same basic advice: “Judge every person in favorable terms" (Mishnah, Avot 1:6). What does that mean? It means: refrain from assuming bad motives. Believe the best about people’s intentions. You can still distinguish between moral and immoral behavior, but don't rush to assume someone was trying to do you wrong.
The rabbis later told a parable to illustrate their advice:
A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages so that he could go home and support his wife and children. The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!” So he said to him, “Well, give me some of the crops I've helped grow.” The man replied, “I have none!” “Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve helped to raise!” And the farmer shrugged and said that he had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.
A few days later his employer came to his house with all of his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you suspect me of?” “I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your cash to buy it.” Then he said “What did you think when I said that I had no crops?” “I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.” He then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?” “I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the Temple.”
The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son wouldn't study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!”
- B. Talmud, Shabbat 127a
When we listen to Jesus in first-century Israel, we hear a rabbi. To be precise, Jesus sounds like Rabbi Hillel who emphasized the grace and love of God not nit-picky rules. Rabbi Hillel lived the generation before Jesus and coined the “Golden Rule” recorded in Shabbat 31a: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation. Go and learn." Loving people (Leviticus 19:18) was the epicenter of Jewish Torah for both Hillel and Jesus. Not all rabbis agreed.
Because Jesus boiled down the Law to its basics, his yoke was light. He did not act like rabbis obsessed with Halaka (legal rulings) who constantly added to God's expectations. He spent more time undoing excessive rules created by other rabbis than he did spelling out what the rules should be. He told stories and parables (Haggada) so people could understand what love and justice looked like in reality not just in stale regulations. He went to the heart of the matter rather than treating obedience to God like a legal matter. Are you following him in this way?
When we listen to Jesus as a first-century rabbi, we can truly hear him. We know what it means to “judge not.” We know what type of allegiance Jesus demands. We know his parables were meant to open up the kingdom in terms people understood not confuse them. We know how to listen like a disciple to a rabbi.
NOTE: If you want to dig further, I recommend Brad Young’s Parables or David Bivin’s New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Or start by reading articles at Jerusalemperspective.com.