Contemplating Jesus


Posted on by Lucinda M. Vardey


The Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico (1387-1455)


Jesus was, without a doubt, a master storyteller. As in most religious and cultural traditions, narratives were used as ways of imparting wisdom.  The people who thronged to listen to Jesus were not always literate –  most of them wouldn’t have been able to read or write.  It is questionable if the early apostles (as fisherman) could either.  But what is clear is that Jesus was a literate man.  Not only did he illustrate mastery of the texts of his Jewish heritage, he also possessed poetic abilities. and a keen eye for the details of the everyday experiences of regular people.  He had obviously scrutinized the habits and rituals of those around him, showing an equal facility between agrarian know-how and the methods and attitudes of the Temple priests.  All these abilities he had at his fingertips so that poetry could roll easily from his lips and mesmerize all who heard it.  Moreover, like most good oral teachings, what he said could be easily remembered and its morals and messages relevant to its audience. 

To choose such a way of preaching tells us that Jesus must have preferred poetry to rhetoric from a young age.  His imagination could have been fed by the poetry of Moses, Job, David, Solomon and Isaiah, which, from Rabbinic repetition, he obviously knew well enough to recite a line from Psalm 31 as his dying words,“Into your hand I commit my spirit.”  

In his biography of Jesus, Paul Johnson, posits that, as a cultured man, Jesus, was also proficient in Greek and Latin as well as Hebrew and his native tongue, Aramaic.

Poetry was the central educative device in ancient Greece through songs and plays and was, in many cases, learned by heart in order that thoughts, facts and ideas could be shared and spread around.  This was the practice that Jesus favoured.  Yes, he could preach from the scrolls in the synagogues, but mostly he preached through poetry and parables.  And when put on the spot, would answer a question with a question.  Thereby, he exemplified a particular art of teaching which had its foundation in story, in mystery, and more than all in self-propelling imagination. 

 A poet creates wide pictures with the least words, lets the spaces between the words be as important as the words themselves; the rhythm and meter of their delivery vital for the emotions to be in relationship with the message.   As a poet, Jesus was succinct and to the point without losing the embellishment of description.  Therein he conjured a picture in the mind which could not be forgotten. and through this picture, the lesson lived. 

Another reason Jesus probably chose parable and poetry as his art was because they were forms that enabled non-conformism; they could upset the status quo of beliefs and attitudes and illuminate prejudices and injustices.   Jesus, himself, stated that his art was not for everyone.  It required a seeing anew, from a different angle, an intuitive wisdom.  Either what he said resonated with the listener, or it didn’t.  By offering this artistic alternative to traditional ways of pedagogy, Jesus invited those who were his sheep to hear his voice.  It was a brilliant device to discern discipleship.

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