[The following is a gently edited and somewhat embellished rendition of the sermon I gave last night at my church’s Vespers service.]
School is back in session. The public school kids have already started; in another week or two the colleges will begin their fall classes as well. Rebecca is no longer bouncing up and down with anticipation of the start of a new school year. Her parents have started bouncing up and down in anticipation of a child who will once again sleep through the night. Teachers have already begun slumping their shoulders. It’s back to work for them!
We may not all be going back to school, but we’re all learners—because that’s what it means to be a disciple. A disciple is a student, a learner, an apprentice. A disciple is someone in training, and therefore we could all stand to take stock of what it means to learn well.
According to the rabbis,
There are four types among them that sit in the presence of sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sifter. The sponge—which soaks up everything; the funnel—which takes in at this end and lets it out at the other; the strainer—which lets out the wine and collects the lees; the sifter—which extracts the coarsely ground grain and collects the fine flour. (m. Abot 5:15)
We see these different kinds of students all around us.
You might think it’s good to be a sponge who soaks up everything, but think about what your bucket looks like after you’ve been mopping the floor. The water gets filled with dust and grime—and all of that gunk gets soaked up when you dip the mop into it. That’s what the rabbis were describing as “the sponge.”
The sponge lacks discernment. He soaks up everything indiscriminately. Once people came to Jesus and asked him, “What is the greatest commandment?” The sponge doesn’t know how to answer that question. The sponge may not even understand that question! Rather, the sponge collects everything but doesn’t know what to do with it or how to sort it out. You can tell if you’ve got a sponge in your Bible study group: he is the person who cites the marginal notes in his Bible as if they were Scripture. She is the person who doesn’t seem to make a clear distinction between what the Bible says and the various interpretations she has learned.
We see these types of learners in church, but we also see them wherever learning takes place. I’ve recently decided they’re all on display at one school in particular: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizarding, where of course the most famous student of all is the illustrious Harry Potter. (Connie tells me I don’t read enough normal books, so I’ve finally gotten around to reading Harry Potter—and now I’m using it as a sermon illustration. 🙂 )
If there’s a sponge at Hogwarts, it’s Hermione Granger. She is the consummate student who reads all her textbooks before the term even starts and has more book-knowledge than any of her peers. Once she even found a magical way to be in two places at the same time so she could take an even fuller class load! There’s no doubting that Hermione soaks everything in. Unfortunately, it often leaves her frazzled, and her perfectionism can get the best of her.
To be sure, it’s not wrong to be such a wealth of information, but the danger exists that more crucial things get crowded to the corners.
The opposite of the sponge is the funnel. With the funnel, it’s in one ear and out the other. The funnel lacks retention. He’s like the part in Jesus’ parable of the sower where the sower sows some of his seed on the stony ground, but before it can take root the birds come along and snatch it up.
Although Ron Weasley gets an honorable mention, Hogwarts’s consummate funnel is the ever-forgetful Neville Longbottom, who always arrives at school having forgotten to pack something and waiting for it to arrive in the mail from his grandmother. He can’t quite manage to remember the password to get into his dormitory, and he struggles mightily in almost all his classes.
The church’s resident funnels probably show up more faithfully than most, but it doesn’t seem to result in any real transformation of their lives. They’re the people James described in the first chapter of his letter, when he challenges his readers to be doers of the word and not hearers only (Jas 1:22). I like the way the NIV conveys this thought: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” James goes on to describe what a forgetful learner is like:
For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themseves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. (Jas 1:23-24)
We look into a mirror when we’re getting ready for our day in order to make sure everything is in order: our hair is parted evenly, there’s no spinach stuck in our teeth. To look and then fail to act on what we see is the height of forgetfulness. So it is with the word of God.
No matter how many Bible lessons or sermons a funnel hears, it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re like the man who always comes to pray at the altar, crying out “Lord, fill me!” And then somebody who knows him pipes up, “Don’t do it, Lord! He leaks!”
An then there’s the strainer. The strainer lacks perspective. His or her values are inverted in such a way that, no matter how much they learn, it doesn’t quite look like the gospel. They collect the dregs at the bottom of the barrel and let the good wine slip away.
Jesus confronted the mentality of the strainer in Matthew 23 when he railed against the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy:
For you tithe mind, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. (Mt 23:23)
Paul also had his dealings with strainers, and warned them that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17).
At their worst, a strainer begins to look like a Fred Phelps, who will go to the streets with signs explaining precisely who it is that God hates. At their worst, a strainer begins to look like a Draco Malfoy, Hogwarts’s resident bully, who is only interested in learning the magic that will help him further his own selfish ambitions. But strainers do not have to be evil, it’s just that somehow they’ve not managed to let the main things be the main things.
Whenever the grid we use to interpret the Scriptures keeps us from confronting questions like “What would Jesus do?” we slip into strainer territory. Everybody reads the Bible through an interpretive grid—everybody. But we need a grid that confronts us with the gospel, a grid that demands we struggle with what it means to love God with heart, soul, and strength and what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. These are the “weightier matters” that need to be at the hub of our discipleship.
We probably see ourselves in at least one of those three categories. We’ve all been there from time to time, but we also understand that there is a better way. For the rabbis, that was the way of the sifter.
The sifter has what the others lack: discernment, retention, and perspective. At Hogwarts, of course, the sifter is the hero of the stories, Harry Potter himself. If you’re familiar with the books, you know that he learned these skills through a good bit of personal tragedy—but also with the love and support of friends who were loyal to the end. Discipleship is often that way.
But there are other sifters for us to imitate. One is the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 13:52, Jesus says, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Many scholars believe that Matthew saw himself in this saying—that he was just such a “scribe” transformed by Jesus’ message of the kingdom of heaven.
It’s certain that Matthew knew how to sift. He was a great collector and sorter, as can be seen when you compare his presentation of Jesus’ message to that of Mark (and possibly Q, but that’s a different lesson entirely!). Sayings that are spread far and wide in Mark and Luke are conveniently collected into five major discourses in Matthew, as if he sensed the need to arrange his materials in a topical fashion for easy reference. He understood what was important and placed it before the eyes of his readers with clarity.
Matthew fits into the scribal tradition of Judaism which began in Babylonian exile. In those days Israel’s experience was much like that of college freshmen: they were far away from home, and everything they had ever learned growing up was being challenged! In Babylon, the Jews held on to their Scriptures as the only thing they had left. They began to set their biblical traditions in order and raised biblical interpretation to an art form.
It’s clear that Matthew lived within this tradition. It’s why he is so eager to tell us how Jesus is the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy and how he comes not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. At the same time, however, Matthew understood that the old stories of Abraham and Moses and Elijah needed to be read in light of the new thing that Jesus preached: the message of the kingdom of heaven, which makes all things new. Matthew was a scribe who drew out the old treasures of the Torah and the new treasures of the kingdom of heaven and set them both before us.
All students carry backpacks, and disciples of Jesus are no exception. In our mental backpacks we carry around with us all the values, beliefs, stories, and traditions we’ve learned growing up. Then we go off to school, or we get a piece of unsettling news from the doctor, or we lose a relationship we thought we could count on, and something happens to challenge all those things we thought we knew.
There are a few ways we can deal with the stuff in our backpacks in a time of crisis. One thing we can do is empty it out—just chuck everything we used to value in the garbage and replace it with something new. We may even pat ourselves on the back that we’ve “outgrown” such an immature approach to faith.
At the other extreme, when our faith is put to the test, we may decide to hold on tight to our backpacks, keep them zipped tight, and never let anything in or out of them. (I went to seminary with some folks like this who bragged after three years that going to seminary “didn’t change them.” What an amazing waste of time and money!)
But there is another option, and it’s one the sifter has come to master. It is possible to open up our backpacks, spread the contents out, and compare the old treasures with the new learnings that life has handed us. Then we can discard whatever doesn’t fit, and through careful discernment fill our backpacks with the treasures old and new: with values, beliefs, and insights that will stand the test of time.
What kind of learner are you? What kind of learner do you want to be? Through Christ, may we be transformed into wise, diligent, and clear-sighted disciples, trained for the kingdom of heaven.
School is back in session—for all of us.