What can we learn about walking with Christ from the way ancient rabbis taught their students? Steve Chalke discovers a challenge to go deeper...
Life was wonderful in the small village that nestled in the bottom of the deep valley alongside the clear, fastflowing waters of the river. The river gave life to the village, providing fresh water for drinking and washing as well as irrigation for the land. It was also a rich source of food. Each year the villagers gathered to give thanks for the river in the community hall. On one such occasion a young man stood up to address the people. “The river brings life to our village. But I intend to go in search of its source.”
The people were shocked. No one had ever travelled to the source of the river. It was thought to be far too long and dangerous a journey to undertake. They tried to dissuade the young man, but without success. The following morning he set out on his journey confident that he would succeed and return to tell them where the river began.
The weeks soon turned into months, the seasons changed, and the harsh winter set in, without any word of the young explorer. Doubts turned to certainty that he had perished and the people’s thoughts about the source of the river died with him.
Then, on the first anniversary of his departure, the people gathered, as was their annual tradition, to celebrate the life of the river. During the celebrations, much to their surprise, the doors of the community hall were flung open and there standing in the entrance was the young man.
“I’ve been to the source!” he shouted out at the top of his voice. The villagers were ecstatic. They dragged him to the heart of the hall and gathered around him.
“The river rises in mountains many months from here. As it makes its way it is joined by many tributaries that feed other villages just like ours. There are waterfalls and rapids to traverse and many landscapes that it passes through.” As he spoke he drew a crude map of his journey on a tablecloth.
Within days the story was being recounted all over the village. The map had been copied and printed up and was now on sale in local shops. At every opportunity the villagers asked him more questions about his journey to the source of the river.
Eventually his story was written down, an official guide to the journey to the river source was produced as well as numerous poems, songs, paintings and books retelling the young man’s story.
But from that day to this, no one else has ever travelled to the source of the river. Privately, it’s still considered to be far too dangerous a journey to undertake. Jesus was a rabbi (the ancient Aramaic word for ‘teacher’). And, like other rabbis before him, he gathered followers to journey with him, to live alongside him and learn through practice.
The word that the Gospels use for Christ’s followers is talmid, which we usually translate as disciple but which, perhaps more accurately and graphically, refers to an apprentice; one who is learning by practical experience under the guidance of a skilled teacher.
The ancient rabbis taught on the move. So life for every rabbi’s apprentice became a literal journey of learning. With a rabbi, the whole of life became a risk-taking, ‘village leaving’, active, experience.
A talmid followed his rabbi everywhere, every day, and every hour of the day – often without knowing where he was going – with one simple goal: to imitate him. The rabbi/talmid relationship is perhaps most famously symbolised in the ancient Hebrew document known as the Mishnah where apprentices of the rabbis are encouraged: ‘You should become dusty in the dust of [your rabbi’s] feet.’ So, whenever you saw a rabbi, walking behind him would be a group of his apprentices, doing their best to keep up with him as he walked and taught. And, after a long day of travelling tightly in his footsteps, the students would have the dust flicked up by his sandals all over them.
A rabbi’s apprentice rarely left his teacher’s side for fear that he would miss a teachable moment. He watched his rabbi’s every move, noting how he acted and thought in any given situation. Apprentices trusted their rabbi completely, working passionately to incorporate his actions and attitudes, as well as his words, into their lives. A disciple’s deepest desire was to follow his rabbi so closely that he would start to think, and act, just like him.
Many Jewish scholars believe that this best explains how Peter briefly walked on water. When Jesus – the rabbi – was seen walking out on the lake, Peter – the talmid – felt the need to imitate him (see Matthew 14:22-33).
Becoming an apprentice of a rabbi in the first century was therefore a very different experience from becoming a 21st-century student. Typically, a student wants to know what their teacher knows in order to achieve a grade, complete a course, or pass an exam. But, in great contrast to this, a first century apprentice wanted to be like their teacher – to become what the teacher was.
Our modern term ‘study’ conjures up images of hours bent over great dusty tomes, trying to absorb information designed to get you through an exam, but which will prove of little value for the realities and vagaries of life. However, the term ‘apprentice’ implies a vitality, a dynamism, and a breadth of multi-facetted learning that ‘study’ lacks.
In the West we could be criticised for turning spiritual maturity into ‘what you know’ rather than ‘what you do about what you know.’ The majority of us have come to learn about Jesus and what it means to be a Christian via a learning environment based around sermons, Bible studies, popular Christian books, conferences and the like. We ‘study the word’ alone and with friends, and on Sundays listen to preachers who have ‘studied’ it in more depth then we have.
Christ’s first apprentice-disciples learnt from him, not just through formal instruction but, primarily, through observation, imitation, practise, misunderstanding, mistakes, failure, setbacks, debate, success; formation of habits and skills; reflection on why things happened the way they did, what could be done differently next time, and lots more practise. And all this was intertwined with certain smells, the taste of bread, and fish, the rocky road beneath the feet, the rocking of the boat, and the still quiet at night.
Jesus understood that this kind of multidimensional, lifelong, ‘village leaving’, learning would reach levels of character and consciousness that would otherwise remain untouched.
So, my daily prayer is this: Lord, help me to find 21st century ways of rediscovering this road less travelled.