The Louisiana Quaker eLetter

ISSN 1523-4924—Vol. 1, No. 11


Jesus came into the world to heal, to teach, to minister, to bring light where there was darkness, to reveal himself to the world. As a teacher, he employed a very specific pedagogical strategy. First and foremost, his teaching was oral. Second, he spoke to the individual, to the situation. It is not that he spoke to the heart, or to the head, only: he spoke in a way that answered for us vital, mortal issues. As a consequence, his message is made both human and particular. One sees this, too, in his healing ministry. He did not raise his hand and heal a country or even a group—he did so one person at a time, and often with a touch. Not that a group miracle was an impossibility for him: after all, he did satisfactorily feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish [Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13].

As an oral teacher, Jesus avoided the many constraints of the written word. Great persons who leave behind writings tend also to pass on a legacy of strife and disputation. The writings themselves take on a life separate from their author and seize the center of attention. They inevitably require caretakers, archivists, curators, editors, editorial committees, translators, interpreters, commentators, specialists, societies, journals, peer-reviews, publications on acid-free paper, new versions in idiomatic language, illustrated versions, leather-bound versions, gold leaf versions ... Like the Torah in the hands of first-century Pharisees, the written words become more important than the one who delivered them. Jesus came to liberate us, not to bind us to new idols.

This is not to say that writing cannot have a place in ministry. It is often necessary and prudent, and has been advantageous in our tradition. But writing is not interactive, and in the psychology of communication, nothing beats a good conversation. Speech has an immediacy that the written word cannot match. As a communicator, I am effective when I can speak to your circumstances and your situation, when I can make you a partner in my purpose. If I personally speak to you and persuade you, if I can take you to the truth by way of our conversation, your effectiveness in convincing any other person rests not on my words alone, but rather on your sincerity, on your ability to communicate what you have taken in as your belief. Oral teaching is like planting seeds: in the right soil a garden will grow.

Of course, Jesus spoke with the highest authority. As an oral teacher, he could also speak to the particular needs of his audience and to their special circumstances. Many of his teachings came directly from specific encounters—the paralytic in the synagogue [Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11], the rich young aristocrat [Matt. 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30], his anointing by a sinful woman [Luke 7:37-50], a quarrel among his disciples [Luke 9:46-48; Mark 9:33-37], a widow's offering [Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4]. He could thus speak in simple language, without pretense, just as one speaks to a friend. He would also use figurative language—not to embellish the words, but rather to aid communication, to build a more complete memory. Although he used the parable for other purposes [Matt. 13:34-35; Mark 4:11-12], Jesus always included parables in explaining the truth to his disciples [Mark 4:34]. The magic of the parable is also that it forces not assent but cogitation: we are led to think about it, to work with it, to come to the truth on our own. It then becomes a part of us, so that we have it to share.

When we appreciate why his teaching was oral, we can understand more fully, I think, why the only recorded writings of Jesus were made in the sand [John 8:6].

—Merle Harton, Jr., The Louisiana Quaker

All biblical references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

BOOK for the month:

Caught in Between: The Story of an Arab Palestinian Christian Israeli.  By Riah Abu El-Assal (Bishop of Jerusalem). SPCK, 1999. ISBN 0-281-05223-9.

This book, by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, is an enthralling, sometimes poignant, and often exasperating tale of several identities in crisis. This is less a book about the Episcopal church and far more a book about the Arab-Palestinian search for identity and the increasing isolation of the Christian community in Israel today. Written by a man who spent his youth and almost all of his adult life in Palestine, this is also the story of the hard consequences of Zionism, how God might be considered a real-estate agent, and how failure to come to terms with life as a Palestinian Arab Christian in Israel usually leads to emigration.

Riah has been priest of the parish in Nazareth for the past 32 years. This is also where he was born and where, as a child, he drank from Mary's Well. Even apart from intervals of travel, including Episcopal divinity studies in India, Palestine is his home. His ethnic identity is Arab, his mother tongue is Arabic, his faith is Christian, but he is also an Israeli citizen who has nevertheless lived the majority of his life as either a refugee or under political occupation.

The 1947 United Nations partition assigned Nazareth and Galilee to Palestine, but these were forcefully incorporated into Israel in 1948, during which time many historic villages were destroyed. Of the villages that remained, many were later subsumed through real-estate transactions that left their Arab-Palestinians dwellers without homes. In 1948 less than 6 percent of the land in Palestine was Jewish owned. Since that time, 93 percent of the Arab-Palestinian land has been literally confiscated, a state of affairs Riah attributes to land management by the Jewish National Fund, which prohibits the sale of land to Arab Israelis.

Riah writes from a personal vantage point, which often colors the perspective, but his viewpoint is a novel one and inevitably heartrending. For both Jews and Palestinians the Bible is not only a spiritual guide, but also a record of their history and proof of their roots in the land. Native Christians and Muslims in Palestine are alike in having been disenfranchised from their homeland. As one reads a complicated piece of modern Near East history through the eyes of this always-interesting witness, one is of course led to sympathy for the Palestinians' situation.

If Riah has any complaint to make, it is not with the three faiths that find their place in this extraordinary land, but rather with the political aims of a Jewish hegemony that has torn apart both Muslim and Christian homes, as well as human lives, in the process of building a modern Israel. He has much to say about the role of communists in this saga, why he is unable to align himself with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and how a Christian is supposed to live in a land ruptured by the tremors of a unique socio-political force.

This is also a wonderful literary performance, well written, with engaging biography, taut vignettes of recent history, and challenging stands on Christian social responsibility. Friends who want to know more about currents of change in the historic region will find this little book to be stimulating and informative, sad but never dispiriting, and always well worth the reading time. - MCH

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Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.