Every society has strengths and weaknesses. Across the world, millions of people live in peasant societies. They grow their own food, they live in small communities, they probably barter rather than spend cash, of which they have little. Societies like this are closely-knit. That is their strength. However, in a peasant society, time is circular. The rhythm of the year is unchanging. Peasants do not expect things to be different for their children or their grandchildren. Life is a repetition.
At the time of Jesus, the land of Palestine was in the middle of a period of rapid change. It was shifting from a peasant society to one in which more and more people lived in towns. This brought commerce, trade, travel. Many tongues were now spoken among them. Moreover, the small farms could not be subdivided any further, leading to families being pushed off the land. Remember too that the people had to cope with an occupying power and its soldiers in their midst. There was worship of foreign gods in the land of the covenant. These changes brought uncertainty, fear, even resentment. Hallowed, ancient ways of living a good life were under question. Many people sought guidance: remember the young man who runs up to Jesus and asks him, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ (Matt. 19.16). Remember, too, that watching him pray, his disciples asked him to teach them to pray. The people at that time certainly had their own traditions, and yet there was a searching, a desire for something to help them find their way through the difficulties and decisions of what we would call modern living.
We hear at the end of the gospel that Jesus taught them at length. How we would have loved to have heard those words! And yet in a sense we have. We have in the gospels the parables that he gave, the sayings, and above all the way that he lived his life. Jesus’s teaching was to be found not only what he said but what he did. If you look beyond the end of the gospel this week you will find that it leads immediately to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, in which Jesus teaches by example.
What about ourselves? What is it that we are looking for? Parents will answer that they want happiness and fulfilment for their children. All of us would say that we want health. Then there is security – everybody needs a good job or pension, a home of their own, freedom from fear. All of these things are good. Yet, deep down, we know that they are not enough. We still face the tricky question of the meaning of life. Like those smallholding farmers in Palestine, we find that the old routines do not satisfy. We want to find ways of living generously. We want to find a strength that is greater than ourselves, indeed, a strength that can be made known even in our greatest weakness. We want a way of life that opens us up to others in community, rather than one that shuts us away with our favourite possessions. We want to know that there is a basic, underlying goodness to the world around us, despite its evils. If necessary, we want a way to live with suffering. We need to know ourselves forgiven.
These questions lead us back to God. To God, in fact, made known in Jesus Christ, not only in his words but also in who he was. His teaching cannot be reduced to slogans, but it can be written on the heart. It is not a code of law but it is a way of life. Above all, it brings us deeper into communion with God the Father, to whom he himself prayed and in whom he found ever greater strength.