I found most of my early years of school to be quite unchallenging. I spent little time doing homework, as I often absorbed the content in class. I also had a pretty good memory, so when it came to tests, I tended to do well without much effort.
Then I took algebra in eighth grade.
My teacher was very old school—and not just because she happened to be old. On the first day, she asked the class to name ten proofs—I had no idea what she was talking about, and my heart sank. I was sure, however, that she was merely trying to get our attention, and in so doing, would compel us to take our study of algebra—and thus her class—seriously. I wasn’t worried, as I had had little problems in math before. Clearly, this class would not take up too much of my time. I had a new Nintendo system at home and The Legend of Zelda waiting.
This was the first—and only—class for which I received an ‘F,’ which arrived rather shockingly on my mid-semester progress report. I knew I wasn’t doing well, but failing?! How would I explain this one to my parents? Given my academic track record as an honor student, my parents were not livid; rather, they were confused and then concerned. How did I feel about my teacher’s advice about getting a tutor? Clearly, this would be cutting into my video game time.
This particular tutor had a great reputation for working miracles with struggling students, in part because she explained subjects in ways that made sense to students—as opposed to having them grasp concepts in tried and true (read: old) ways. Drilling lessons, re-reading the textbook, etc. didn’t work for everybody.
Of course this also meant that she was expensive. Mom and Dad, however, never flinched (in front of me) nor did they make me feel bad for needing help. In the beginning, I would be going twice a week. After a number of weeks filled with frustration and a few tears during those sessions, I raised my grade to a C+, which was fine with me.
Although I learned an appreciation for the amount of hard work it takes to reach an understanding of a challenging subject, I also appreciated the importance of changing the way you approach a topic, breaking it down in terms a particular audience needs: not all content can be delivered in a universal way and still be understood.
As the Gospel of Matthew demonstrates, this was Jesus’ greatest gift—and what made him such a threat to those in power. He explained important, somewhat complicated ideas to the common person. And as we all know, knowledge is power. Jesus accomplished this through the use of parables.
Among others, there is the Parable of the Sower, which discusses receiving God’s word (13:20-23); The Parable of the Weeds, which suggests that some weeds need to be left alone in the interest of the rest of the crop (which might be damaged if they are removed) (13:29); the Parable of the Net, which likens angels to fishermen, who will sort the good from the bad in life’s net at death’s door (13:50); and the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which explained that there is no seniority with regard to believing in God when it comes to entering heaven (20:1-16).
Clearly, the man knew how to convey a point in ways that his audience understood. Although his points were sometimes lost on his disciples and Jesus had to try and explain his points again.
Eventually, his points were made, and they were so successful, his audience looked to him for his divine understanding. Naturally, this meant that the priests who were the ones who used to be revered were threatened. So they challenged him, hoping to discredit this man and remove him as a threat. So Jesus offers his Parable of the Tenants to them upon his return to Jerusalem. In this parable, they instantly grasp what he means: those who have not taken care of the owner’s property will be evicted and new, more faithful tenants secured (21:33-41).
These examples demonstrate not only Jesus’ deft touch with regard to conveying his points/ideas but also to the power of words and stories. Sure, armies can crush people and bring about much misery (and perhaps peace, depending on your point of view), but perhaps the famous adage held true even for Jesus: the pen is mightier than the sword. Jesus may not have written down his ideas, but it appears he didn’t have to. They resonated so well that others did it for him (in the form of the New Testament).
I can see why so many people followed him (and continue to do so) and also why so many people recognized how inspiring he could be.