(4.) Teaching Methods of Jesus: Imagination

(4.) Teaching Methods of Jesus: Imagination

(4.) Teaching Methods of Jesus: Imagination.

Capture the Imagination. Very little learning will occur without forming mental images of something that isn’t present, and so the self-motivating inspiration of an energized intellect is crucial. The imagination is the intellect at play. It is reason listening to a story, or logic painting a picture. The imagination is also key in strengthening the conscience, since compassion so often starts with the heartfelt images that result in empathy. The imagination is also crucial in developing faith, since “faith is the realization of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).  Faith is grounded in the mental images of spiritual belief. Jesus Himself had an inspired imagination, and He knew the importance of capturing the imaginations of His audience in His teaching ministry. Here are a handful of teaching methods that were used by Jesus to inspire the imagination:

STORY. Jesus could have taught the truth with three point sermons explaining the orderly mystery of the Godhead. He could have centered on a long list of theological propositions and abstract concepts. He could have focused on spiritual information in logical sequence. But He didn’t. He instead wanted to capture the people’s imagination through story, through short and stimulating narratives that make a point. Jesus taught through His homespun parables using common things of everyday life to teach a deeper lesson about the Kingdom, about how God operates. Jesus knew His audience. The Jewish mind was trained for centuries to accept story as the means of communicating the truth. As Eugene Peterson put it in Christ Plays in 10,000 Places, “The Hebrew way to understand salvation was not to read a theological treatise but to sit around the campfire with family and friends and listen to a story.” So the centerpiece of Jesus’ discourse was story-telling. In fact at one point Scripture says He told nothing but parables (Matthew 13:34). His earthy stories were a creative way to come at the truth sideways to get attention and stimulate thought. His parables about everyday realities drew the audience in and were cleverly spun to inspire, to provoke, to illustrate, even to stump. Sometimes His parables were like firecrackers, designed to wake up the mind and light a fire in the heart. Other parables were like smoke bombs, offered to make things a little hazy to encourage the listener to pursue an idea further. Still other parables were straightforward common sense and fit perfectly into the Hebraic wisdom tradition. The stories of Jesus were designed  to create “aha!” moments through word pictures, and anecdotes, and extended metaphors to reach the understanding of the audience. Unexpectedly, because they were couched in simple terms, parables were actually deep dives into meaningful theology. These truths were taught indirectly and not intellectually. “Even the most sophisticated stories tend to bring out the childlike in us – expectant, wondering, responsive, delighted – which, of course is why the story is the child’s favorite form of speech; why it is the Holy Spirit’s dominant form of revelation; and why we adults, who like to pose as experts and managers of life, so often prefer explanation and information.” (Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in 10,000 Places).

Humor.  Teachers with a sense of humor are able to wield a significant tool in the teaching of something serious. Jesus’ humor was displayed through ridiculous exaggerations, unlikely scenarios, and clever word play. Jesus was a master of words, so He often painted humorous and ironic pictures that would make the audience knowingly nod their heads or even laugh out loud. The comical, almost slapstick image of the blind leading the blind (Matt. 15:14); a camel trying to walk through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25); the ludicrous scenario when someone tries to strain out a gnat in their drink but ends up swallowing a camel (Matt. 23:24); the absurd image of a man trying to get some sawdust out of a neighbor’s eye when he’s got a plank in his own eye (Matt. 7:5). All those images were no doubt told with a twinkle in the eye. Much of Jesus’ humorous word play was more subtle since Jesus used Aramaic in His telling. One example adds another layer of humor to His little illustration about the gnat and the camel. Those two words in Aramaic are almost identical. And shows Jesus playfully telling the audience, “You filter out a galma, but you swallow a gamla!” Jesus knew instinctively how effective humor would be in His speaking ministry, and so He cleverly sprinkled humor into His teaching to tickle the imagination.

METAPHOR. Jesus loved to inspire the imagination through His clever use of metaphor. He knew that the Jewish mind was accustomed to the use of metaphor due to the dominance of the Hebrew Bible. Generations of Jewish people were raised in a culture steeped in the myriad of metaphors in their Scriptures. They knew that people are like sheep, that God was similar to an eagle, that kings resemble shepherds. So Jesus jumped with both feet into this particular part of speech… Faith is like a mustard seed; a teachable heart is similar to fertile soil; building a faithful life resembles house construction. The Jewish audience was well-trained to engage their imagination so they were able to make the connections between one thing and another thing that has similar characteristics. In the Gospel of John, Jesus successfully used metaphor in all His “I AM” statements. He helpfully connected qualities of an everyday common object to His mission and status as the divine Messiah. He unpacked His nature in ways that the imaginative people of Israel could understand: I AM the Bread of Life; I AM the Light of the World; I AM the Gate for the Sheep; I AM the Good Shepherd; I AM the Resurrection and the life; I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life; I AM the True Vine. These simple metaphors, as with other more complex ones, were brilliantly spoken by Jesus to deepen their understanding of who He was and what He did. Parables were extended metaphors, and in other cases He went in the other direction and used one-liners as well. Jesus was a true master of capturing the imagination by cleverly saying that one thing is like another. Jesus was the master of metaphor.

ILLUSTRATION. Another inspirational aspect of Jesus’ teaching was His use of illustrations, especially from nature. He was comfortable pointing to physical creation in making his lesson heard. Nature was often His prop in the illustration of a spiritual truth. For instance, He would often use the image of a harvest when thinking of vast groups of people who would respond to the Good News (Luke 10 and Matt. 9). He referred to the fields white for harvest while watching a village full of Samaritans in their white cloaks approaching Him after talking with the woman at the well (John 4). Jesus would often point to natural things like salt (Matt. 5), light (Matt. 5), and the eye (Matt. 6). Jesus would happily point to nature as visual aids: “Look at the birds!” He would say. “Look at the lilies of the field!” (Matt. 6). Jesus loved to illustrate His lesson by focusing on whatever part of nature was handy as reference points to spiritual truth. Jesus seemed to find nature close at hand whenever He spotted a teachable moment. He would use nature to capture the imagination and make the connections between an abstract thought and an aspect of nature. Jesus knew that a natural illustration would spark the imagination of the audience, and would be an effective way to bring His lesson home.