One of my go-to sources for a small group discussion starter is Garry Poole’s The Complete Book of Questions: 1001 Conversation Starters for Any Occasion. One of my educator friends put me onto the book shortly after its publication. A perusal of the table of contents reveals several types of questions ranging from Light and Easy to Personal Preferences & Viewpoints to Spiritually Speaking. If my memory serves me well, the book contains several questions related to whom we would like to spend time with, past or present, and why. In responding to the “why?” question, people usually indicate that they would like to learn from the person, asking lots of questions.
There is an old Jewish maxim that goes something like this: “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.” The idea behind the saying is that a rabbi’s disciples were to follow him so closely that as they walked with him, their own feet would become caked with the dust from his sandals.
Sometimes we tend to forget that Jesus was seen primarily as a rabbi by his contemporaries. If you have spent time watching The Chosen, his role as a rabbi is quite evident. In the first century rabbinical system, students asked learned rabbis if they could become a disciple (learner), as we discussed in the post He Picked Me! A rabbi would then invite the students that he thought worthy of his investment to become his disciples. In first century terminology, a disciple was invited take on the yoke (teachings) of the rabbi. There were several expectations of the disciple when he took on the yoke of a rabbi…
The first expectation of the disciple was to be with the rabbi. In the first century that implied that the disciple would live in the proximity of the rabbi, possibly requiring him to physically relocate to his town. It also implied that being a disciple was a full-time endeavor. Jesus, as an itinerant rabbi, invited his disciples to literally become followers (cf Matt. 4:19, Mark 2:14, John 1:43). They left their day jobs to travel with him for three years. In a quick read through the Gospels one realizes that for them, following Jesus translated into a three-year road trip. They often journeyed into territories they never expected. Come be with me no matter where I go.
Secondly, the rabbi’s disciples expected to learn from him. Rabbis were the first century theological teachers/professors. Imagine getting to spend extended time with one of your favorite college professors. Imagine what you could glean from his/her knowledge. I spoke of one such experience in the post, Hesed and Emet – a transformative experience. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… (Matt. 11:29).
We know full-well that we become like the people with whom we spend time. We become like our parents. Spouses become like each other. Disciples became like their rabbi – it was expected, anticipated, and frankly couldn’t be averted. When Jesus invited people to follow him, he assumed they would be transformed, imitating and taking on his character. The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher (Luke 6:40).
And finally, rabbis expected their disciples to put their learning to practical use by joining them in their mission – likely to also become rabbis, teaching people to know and obey the 613 Jewish laws (or, at least, the laws the rabbi deemed most pertinent). Jesus invited his first disciples to follow him and become fishers of people (Matt. 4:19, Mark 1:17), not keepers of the Law. After his death and resurrection, Jesus clarified their mission: go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19-20). Replicate the process. How were they to do this? Just like he did: As the Father has sent me, I am sending you (John 20:21).
Fast forward a couple thousand years. What does this mean for us? Actually, I think this tells us how simple (I didn’t say easy) following Jesus really is. We be with him (reading the Gospels regularly*). We learn from him (he really was a great teacher, story-teller, and question-asker). The more time we spend with him and learn from him, we can’t help but become like him. This sets us up to naturally join him in his mission of helping others be with him, learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission. And he modeled it all for us. I wonder if we haven’t made this all too complicated?
May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.
* ADDENDUM 1/31/2023: Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help the listener experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. Enjoy!