Dust

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.

He Picked Me!

Circa Spring 1958. I was in third grade at Handke Elementary. We took Bus #5 from the farm to school. The bus driver actually made two trips each morning. The neighbor kids up the road were the last to get on the bus for the first trip, we were the first for the second route. The first route riders arrived at school about 20-25 minutes before start time. The second route got us to school just as the first bell rang.

When I arrived at school, the town kids would be coming in from the playground after playing some pick-up baseball. I wanted to play ball all my life, but farm chores negated that opportunity. Maybe there was a way I could get in on the pick-up games. I negotiated with the bus driver that if I was at the road when he came by the first time, he would pick me up allowing me to get early for some baseball. Life was good! Sort of. By the time I got to the playground, teams were already picked and the captains argued over who had to take me. Because the others played ball together all summer, they knew each other’s abilities. I was an unknown and lived with those feelings of being “picked last.”

One day Tim Thompson showed up. Tim, I discovered, was a pretty big deal. He was in eighth grade and apparently was a really good ball player. The town kids urged Tim to play, but they couldn’t decide which team should get him. So Tim solved the problem. He said, “Let me pick one player and we will take on all the rest of you. However, we get to bat first.” Of course all the town kids huddled around him, yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” Tim looked around and…

…he picked me – the most unlikely candidate! So it was Tim and me against nine. He asked if I could hit. I said, “Yes.” He said, “Good. Just get on base and I’ll get you home!” And that’s what we did. I got on base and Tim hit a home run – again and again. I don’t think the other team ever got to bat! I felt valued (and a bit vindicated).

Jesus tended to invite people to follow him who were not likely candidates. Israel’s first-century education system was religiously focused.  The boys (sorry girls) started school at about age six.  For the next 3-4 years they memorized the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  By age 10, those with natural abilities to memorize and understand the scriptures began to distance themselves from the others.  They were invited to continue their education.  The others?  They were sent back home to learn the trades of their fathers.  They were cut by the system – kinda like American sports.

Those that continued a formal education spent the next four years memorizing the rest of the Hebrew scriptures.  During this time, the students also began learning the questions that surrounded the scriptures.  By age 14-15, only the best of the best students remained.  The rest were home, learning the trade of their fathers.  Those remaining would then apply to a well-known rabbi (teacher) to become one of that rabbi’s disciples (student/learner). If selected, the rabbi would invite the student to “follow me.” The goal of the student, now a disciple, wasn’t just to learn from the rabbi, but to actually become like him and participate in his mission. 

Jesus was apparently a rabbi.  People called him one, so at the very least he was perceived as a rabbi.  Jesus lived around the lake Galilee region, probably in the fishing village of Capernaum.  It was a small town so it would be safe to say he knew and was known by a majority of its residents.  I’m guessing the locals were fully aware that their resident rabbi wasn’t like the rest, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on why he was different.

One day Jesus was out walking along the beach. He saw two brothers, the local fishermen Simon (Peter) and Andrew. He called out to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Farther down the beach, Jesus encountered James and John who were fishing with their father. They received the same invitation. All four RSVP’d immediately, dropping their careers to follow Jesus. There is enough here for several blog postings, but we will briefly consider a few things…

  • Jesus was probably not a stranger to the four fishermen. As Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry, he was relationally invested in the people around him. We can certainly surmise that Jesus knew these guys, maybe quite well. Likely they were his source of fresh fish.
  • The four guys were probably well aware of Jesus as a teacher (rabbi) who taught and said things differently than they had heard from other teachers. They were hearing about God and his kingdom in new ways. Maybe what Jesus said sounded right to them.
  • This rabbi invited these most unlikely candidates to follow him! They were, after all, no longer going to school. They had been cut and were working their fathers’ trade. Yet Jesus said, “Follow me.”

Given this, why wouldn’t they have walked away from their careers to follow the radical rabbi, Jesus – to become like him and share in his mission? We cannot, we should not take lightly Jesus’ call on us to follow Him, even if we feel like unlikely candidates – especially if we feel like unlikely candidates. Nor should we take lightly his call on those around us who seem like unlikely candidates.

“In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21)