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6. Language that Liberates

Jesus came from the country side, as we have seen. He spoke the language of the ordinary people in Galilee. He did not address his message only to the learned or to the religious upper classes. He spoke to the many people in the towns and villages of Galilee who needed liberation. Did he succeed as a spiritual teacher? Did his words set people free or make them more dependent?

To explain the meaning of this question, let me introduce someone from the northeast of Brazil, a man called Paolo Freire. (1) Freire who was born in Recife in 1921, resembles Jesus in some respects. His parents were middle-class people who had suffered great hardships on account of the economic depression. As a boy Paolo often went to school on an empty stomach. His clothes were second hand. The family could not afford to pay for textbooks. As an adolescent, Paolo turned away from the Church for a while because of its lack of involvement in people's everyday struggles. Fortunately he rediscovered his Christian faith and he decided to dedicate his life to helping the poor.

Education, Freire saw, was essential. But the official school system did not liberate people, it enslaved them. How to describe the situation at the time? A small elite of powerful fami-lies owned all the land, ran the factories, controlled trade and held on to political posts. The rural population and the working class who lived in dire misery were exploited, to produce more wealth for the lucky few at the top. (2) What did the schools do in this situation? Freire found that instead of helping the poor to become real persons - individuals who can think and act for themselves, schools tightened people's bonds even more.

Textbooks did little more than instil into the minds of pupils the notions and values that would uphold the prevailing system. Students were taught reading and writing, maths, geography, history and religion, in such a way that they would become more useful employees, submissive citizens and naive consumers. Parcels of knowledge were passed on which the students had patiently to receive, memorise and repeat. Freire compared this form of education to 'banking'. People are treated as objects. Knowledge is 'deposited' in them as an investment which will yield financial profit in the end.

The result of this kind of education is that people always remain dependent. (3) They cannot grow as individuals. They do not learn to stand on their own feet as people who share re- sponsibility for their world. To achieve this true personal growth Freire developed a new form of education which he successfully launched among the rural populations of Brazil and Chile. (4) Freire coined the phrase 'conscientisation'. (5) is insights and methods have revolutionised education all over the world, and have greatly influenced ordinary school curriculums as well as adult literacy programmes.

You may well wonder why I introduce Freire's thought here while we are talking about Jesus. The answer is that Freire has focussed attention on right and wrong forms of teaching. He has also proved beyond doubt that language plays a key role in such teaching. Since we believe that Jesus is the greatest teacher of all times, the question arises: how does he fit in?

Bad teachers impose their ideas in ready-made form. They consider themselves omniscient, the students as ignorant. They talk, expecting the students to listen and memorise. They reduce the students to being recipients; passive objects; parrots; robots. They cast themselves in the role of the potter who can mould the clay to any form he likes. Bad teachers enslave people. Good teachers, however, impart knowledge in such a way that they encourage students to think for themselves. Teaching is dialogue, communication, a shared search. Good teachers set people free because they allow them to grow as autonomous, free individuals.

The Old Testament frequently uses the image of the potter. Remembering how God 'moulded Adam from clay' (Genesis 29,16), prophets point to this image to demonstrate our total dependence on God (Isaiah 29,16; 45,9; 64,7). However, the image did not ex- clude, rather presupposed, our human free will (see Jeremiah 18,1-6; Sirach 15,11-20).
Why did Jesus not use the image of the potter? Did he detect its connotations of rigidity and passivity? It is certainly interesting that to denote people he preferred living images, such as a seeds, plants and trees.

May we not, without realising what we are doing, push Jesus into the role of a very bad teacher? Jesus, we might think, knew everything and, while on earth, formulated a set of revealed truths that he handed over to us. This ready-made 'deposit of faith' contains the articles of doctrine and principles of morality that have been laid down once for all. As Jesus' students we have faithfully to believe and obey, transmit and execute what he has told us. What, in such a fundamentalist mind set, we do not realise is that this conception reduces us, believers, to being passive 'objects' and chains us for good to rigid forms of belief and action.

But was this Jesus' way of teaching? Yes, Jesus did reveal God's loving intentions. There are truths and principles which belong to a 'deposit of faith'. But did Jesus share this revelation in such a way as to enslave us; or to set us free? Did he silence us once for all; or did he want us to think for ourselves too? Did he lay down rigid models of behaviour; or did he expect us to make responsible decisions for ourselves?

Paolo Freire has suggested some useful norms to judge teachers by. (6) In particular, I am impressed by three practical rules to help us evaluate a teacher's use of language.

1. What kind of things does the teacher speak about? Does he use words that alienate his pupils? Or do his words start from the experience of his pupils and generate discussion?
2. Does the teacher speak down to his students? Or does he help them to think for themselves?
3. Does the teacher begin a process of challenging systems and structures that need to be changed?

I want to take these questions as our starting point for a fresh look at Jesus' language. Jesus spoke as a teacher. Does his message liberate us? Does it make us critical, conscious and responsible Christians?

The choice of words

Freire discovered that we dominate thought by the words we choose. Textbooks that speak about presidents, prime ministers and generals make everyday life insignificant. Advertisers promote consumer needs by speaking of their products. Preachers may narrow people's outlook by mouthing religious jargon unrelated to down-to-earth reality. For his adult literacy campaigns Freire studied the life of the ordinary people and carefully selected 'generative words': words taken from their situation that could generate critical reflection. For the rural workers of Pernambuco, these were: shack, plough, well, hunger, and so on. A word was illustrated with a drawing that presented the web of relationships involved in the word. Each word became the core of a lesson that made people reflect on their world.

What about Jesus? What words did he use?

The Gospels show that almost all his teachings are phrased in images taken from people's every-day lives. We take it so much for granted that we may not sufficiently realise the implications of this momentous fact. If Jesus truly was the one who revealed God to us through his own human personality, as we truly believe, he brought this revelation in the words and images of ordinary people. He did not speak as a lecturer at the University, or as a learned theologian. He used words and images familiar to Galilean country folk.

Many of Jesus' sayings reflect knowledge of a farmer's life. He speaks of sowing the seed, (7) weeding, (8) reaping the harvest. (9) He knows a farmer needs to keep his hand on the plough while ploughing, (10) that birds eat seeds, (11) that thorn bushes strangle the young shoots, (12) that landlords demand their portion of the crop. (13) He describes the care lavished on single fig trees, (14) the pruning required by vines (15) and the mysterious growth of the mustard tree.(16) He talks of a farmer laying a yoke on an ox and a burden on a donkey,(17) or taking the animals to a well to drink. (18) This is the kind of life people knew. It was the day-to- day reality they were exposed to.

Jesus also takes his images from the life of shepherds, soldiers, tax collectors, landowners, merchants, fishermen, the blind, kings and generals as seen by ordinary people.

He points to things people had observed in nature: the enchanting flowers of the field that appear after the first rains, (19) the vultures that descend on the corpse of an animal, (20) the dark red sky that announces rain, (21) the beautiful sunrises over the lake of Galilee (22) and towns built on a hill that can be seen from afar.(23)

Jesus often relates his teaching to what people experienced at home. A house built on sand is not safe; only a house built on rock will survive a storm. (24) A woman who has lost a coin will sweep the whole floor carefully till she finds it. (25) In the evening people will light an oil lamp. It is not put under a bowl but on a stand so that it can give light to the entire room.(26) Meat and fish will soon rot if they are not salted. (27) A man who goes to sleep at night will not easily get up when someone knocks on the door to borrow a loaf of bread; for his wife and children are sleeping on mattresses around him all over the floor. (28)

The details of a woman's life did not escape Jesus' observant eye.
What is particularly interesting is that he often pairs examples taken from a man's world with matching ones from a woman's.
As a good teacher he had not forgotten that there were women among his audience.
The parable of the shepherd looking for the lost sheep is followed by the parable of the woman searching for her lost coin (Luke 15,4-10).
The kingdom of God is like the mustard seed planted by a farmer and yeast mixed in dough by a woman (Matthew 13,31-33).
The image of the man wanting bread at night is matched by the widow pestering the judge (Luke 11,5-8 and 18,1-8).
When the last day comes, 'of two men working in the field, one will be taken (to heaven), one left;
of two women grinding corn at the millstone, one will be taken, one left' (Matthew 24,41).

Jesus mentions everyday objects: the heavy millstone turned by two women to grind corn, (29) an old coat patched with pieces of new cloth, (30) skins used to keep wine, (31) the seasoning herbs, mint, dill and cumin', (32) a sieve used to strain a fly out of a drink, (33) a key to lock the door (34) and the 'treasure' box people would keep in their homes . (35)

From all these examples, and many more that could be taken from the Gospel text, it is clear that Jesus took his words and images from people's day-to-day reality. He did this, not as a ploy, as an educational gimmick, to adapt himself to the 'lowly standard of his audience'. Rather, he employed familiar images for exactly the reason expressed much later by Freire: that people can only truly learn from within their own experience. Jesus' words and images were 'generative'. Taking them from people's own lives Jesus broadened their horizon, so that they could discover the new reality that should come about.

It also implies that in our own day and age Christians will have to find new generative words and images that correspond to the world we live in. Jesus' original words will always retain their validity; but they do not exclude, rather they demand, new formulations in terms relevant today. We have already looked at this, from another angle, in the previous chapter. Jesus has set us free by starting the process of speaking 'generative' words.

In its marvellous document, The Church in the Modern World, Vatican II provides a good example of how the Church continues what Jesus had begun. The document picks up many generative words from technology, the human sciences, the social order, economics, the world's religious and political forces. These are called 'the signs of the times', recalling Jesus' rebuke to the scribes: 'You can predict the weather by looking at the sky. Why can't you discern the signs of the times?' (36)

The document states:

'To continue Jesus' task the Church has always had the duty of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. In language intelligible to every generation she can respond to the ever recurring questions which people ask about this present life and the life to come . . . ’(37)

Critical Reflection

Any teaching worthy of the name should stimulate critical thinking according to Paolo Freire. Good teaching is a process of dialogue in which teacher and student both explore part of reality and discover new truths. In the words of Freire: 'To speak a true word is to transform the world .... but no one can say a true word for another. (38) The teacher encourages the student to think for himself or herself. Is this the way Jesus taught?

Again, the answer is YES. Jesus did not attempt to pass on a body of knowledge people had passively to accept. Jesus wanted people's eyes to be opened. He wanted them to see for themselves. He complained about lack of response when he said in the words of Isaiah:

'This people listens and listens, but does not understand.
They look and look, but do not see.
For their minds are dull.
They have stopped their ears and closed their eyes .... ’ (39)

The story of the man born blind speaks for itself. (40) Jesus cures the man of his blindness, but not without the man's own cooperation. First the blind man has to make his own way from the Temple area to the pool of Siloam. Jesus does not send an apostle to take him there by hand. After his cure, people do not want to accept his story. Then the man has to defend Jesus' action against the objections of the Pharisees who claim no one may practice medicine on the sabbath. Even his parents desert him saying: 'He is old enough. Let him speak for himself!'

But the blind beggar who was surely uneducated, gains confidence and begins to think critically. 'The man who opened my eyes is a prophet', he says. A little later: 'This is amazing! He has opened his eyes and you people don't know where he comes from! We know that God doesn't listen to sinners .... If this man were not from God, he could not do a thing.' (41) Eventually the man meets Jesus again and accepts him as his saviour. At the end of the episode Jesus concludes: 'I have come into this world so that those who are blind may see, and those who see may be blind. (42) Conversion is a process of opening one's eyes and one's heart.

We should also note the paradox: 'the blind see, those who see are blind'. Paradoxes force us to think because they seem to express conflicting ideas. Jesus loved to present his message in such paradoxes.

'Who comes first shall be last, who comes last shall be first.' (43)
'He who wants to be the first, should be the last of all.' (44)
'He who is not for me is against me.' (45)
'Whoever is not against us is for us.' (46)
'Happy are you who hunger now, you will be satisfied....
Woe to you who are filled now, you will go hungry!' (47)
'If the light in you is darkness, how dark it will be! (48)
'Let the dead bury their dead! (49)

Such paradoxes force people to think. Who are 'the first' or 'the last'? How are we 'for' or 'against' Jesus? What 'hunger' or 'darkness' is Jesus talking about? Who are 'the dead' that bury their dead? and so on. We discover that things are often not what they seem to be.

Questions open people's minds. The scribes were used to raising and discussing questions. More than once they bom- barded Jesus with questions:

'Why do you eat with sinners and tax collectors?' (50)
'Why do your disciples eat corn on the sabbath?'(51)
'Why do you not wash your hands before the meal?' (52)
'On what authority dare you act like this? (53)

Jesus in turn would ask questions of his own. '

I too will ask you a question. Tell me: did John's o baptism come from heaven or from below?' (54)
'Have you not read what David did when he and his followers were hungry . . . ?' (55)
'Which one of you will not pull his son out of a well on a sabbath day, if the boy falls into it?' (56)
'Show me a denarius. Whose image and name are on it? (57)
'What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?' (58)

In fact, according to Luke's Gospel Jesus had already begun to ask questions of the scribes during his visit to the Temple as a twelve-years old boy. 'He sat among the teachers in the Temple, listening to them and asking them many questions . . .’ (59)

Was an omniscient Jesus playing a game with the scribes? No, Jesus 'grew in wisdom' (60) by sharing the searchings of learned people. As with every mature person, the habit of listening and raising questions must have remained with Jesus throughout his life. Although on many occasions he would teach with authority and act with prophetic determination, on other occasions he knew the doubts of the seeker.

'Father, what shall I say? Shall I say: 'Save me from this hour?" (61)
'God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'(62)

Jesus’ desire to make his audience think also transpires from his frequent use of parables. A parable is a form of teaching closely related to the riddle. While a riddle could be devised with the simple idea of entertaining people, (63) the parable had a teaching purpose. Also, unlike the riddle, the parable is open- ended. Its meaning is not covered by one single application. It invites people to chew on what is intended, to discover layer upon layer of meaning.' (64)

To ensure that the parables would make people think, Jesus did not, as a rule, explain them at once. Sometimes he would give an explanation to his apostles. (65) Even then his explanation was not given to 'close' the meaning; it was a pointer in the general direction.

What would people make of this enigmatic story?

An unclean spirit who had left a man, roamed through the desert and could not find a place to stay in. 'Well, I'll go back to the home I left', it thought. When it returned, it found the place vacant, swept and tidy. So it went off again and collected seven other spirits more evil than itself.
All went in and set up house in that place. (66)

What unclean spirit was Jesus talking about? What warning did he give?

Or consider the parable of the children on the market place. People would wonder what Jesus meant by it. In the story, some of the children complained: 'We played the pipes for you and you wouldn't dance; we sang funeral hymns and you wouldn't mourn'. (67)Who were the players and who the sulkers?

The Gospel tells us that teaching parables was a matter of principle for Jesus.

All this Jesus told the crowds in parables.
Without parables he told them nothing.
This was to fulfil the prophecy:
'I will open my mouth to you in parables.
I will expound things hidden from the beginning.'
Matthew 13,34-35. (68)

By reflecting on his parables people would gradually discover the new 'kingdom of God' Jesus was proclaiming to them.

Challenging oppressive structures

A third skill which Paolo Freire requires good teachers to pass is the ability to discern 'problems'. He also calls this 'uncovering limit situations': situations that limit people's freedom and so need to be overcome. The teacher has to start the process of challenging the forces that oppose freedom. Did this apply to Jesus?

Jesus did not see himself first and foremost as a social reformer. And, as we saw in the previous chapter, there were many injustices in his time which, within his own limitations, he could not address. But he did start the process of challenging forces that curtail people's freedom. Jesus often acted and spoke as a prophet who denounced what was wrong. (69) And of special interest are those instances where Jesus pointed out that language was being used as a form of manipulation.

People often use language to deceive and manipulate. Words then become a tool of oppression. People say things in a clever way to gain an advantage over others. Jesus disapproved of this use of language.

Jesus abhorred the way in which political rulers could impose their authority and demand public titles of honour as well. 'The kings of the pagans lord it over their people. Those who exercise power are given the title 'benefactor'. (70)Jesus does not want the apostles to act in the same way. That is why he wants them to avoid such honorary titles as 'Teacher', 'Father' and 'Leader'. (71)

Jesus told the parable of the unjust steward who cleverly changed his master's accounts to make friends among the farmers who owed him money. (72) Jesus decried the way in which the scribes and Pharisees laid heavy burdens upon people's shoulders by their supercilious demands.(73)

Jesus rejected the use of language by persuasive salesmen, clever politicians or hypocritical preachers.

This is what Jesus taught about human words:

'Judge a tree by its fruits.
No good tree produces rotten fruit,
nor does a bad tree produce healthy fruit.
You cannot harvest figs from a thorn bush or grapes from a bramble.
A good person produces good from the store of goodness in his heart.
A bad man draws what is bad from his store of evil.
For a person' words flow out of what fills his heart.' (74)

Freedom of faith and conscience

Christians are people whom Jesus expects to think for themselves. Fundamentalists who cast Jesus in the role of an authoritarian and paternalistic preacher, have invented a similar role for Church leaders. But this was not Jesus' idea, nor is it the teaching of the Church. Yes, the Church has authority to present doctrine and lay down moral guidelines, but these are not to be imposed from above. They are given to believers who have the duty and the freedom to assimilate them in their own personal act of faith and their own individual conscience. No one can believe for us or make moral decisions for us.

Here are some statements of Vatican II in its Declaration on Religious Freedom:

'Each human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all people should be immune from coercion by individuals, social groups or any human power, so that in religious matters no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to one's own beliefs . . . .'

'Truth is to be sought after in a manner appropriate to the dignity of the human person and his social nature, that is: the enquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue. In the course of these, people explain to each other the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order to assist one another in the quest for truth. And, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that people are to adhere to it . . . .'

'In the formation of their own consciences, Christian believers should carefully attend to the sacred and certain doctrines of the Church. The Church is, by Christ's will, the teacher of the Truth. It is her duty to express, and authoritatively, to teach, that Truth which is Christ; and also to declare and confirm by her authority principles of the moral order....’ (75)

The important thing is to realise that Christ's authority as a teacher and the freedom of the believer do not exclude each other. In fact, Christ's teaching, and in our own time the Church's teaching, truly set us free by giving us the guidance by which we ourselves can of our own accord commit ourselves to faith and to a Christian life.


1. Christ wanted us to accept his message as free, mature and responsible people. How then could he make this demand?

'Unless you change and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.' (Matthew 18,3-4)

Does a child not leave thought and decision to his parents?

2. The Church has authoritative teaching power in doctrinal and moral matters. Christ said to the apostles:

'Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.
Whatever you loosen on earth shall be loosened in heaven.'
(Matthew 18,18)

Does this not restrict the freedom of Christian believers?

3. Vatican II says:

It is to be hoped that more lay people will receive adequate theological formation and that some among them will dedicate themselves professionally to these studies and contribute to their progress.
For the proper exercise of this function, let it be recognised that all the faithful, both clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry, thought and expression.
Let this expression be both humble and courageous in whatever branch of study they have specialised.'

The Church in the Modern World, no 62.

Is theology the preserve of priests and religious? What makes us theologians?


1. Among various biographies written about Freire I recom mend: D.COLLINS, Paulo Freire. His life, works and thought, New York 1977.

2. E.DEKADT, Catholic Radicals in Brazil, Oxford 1970.

3. 'The acceptance of the values of the rich is the greatest obstacle for the liberation of the poor.' J.MOLTMANN, The Way of Jesus Christ, London 1989, p. 101.

4. P.FREIRE, 'Education as the Practice of Freedom' and 'Extension or Communication' both published under the collective title: Education for Critical Consciousness, New York 1973; Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York 1972; 'The Educational Role of the Churches in Latin America', Latin American Documentation (LADOC), vol.3, no 14 (1972) pp. 1 - 14.

5. P.Freire explains the term well in 'Conscientisation', The Month, May 1974, pp. 575 - 578; see also The Outlook 14 (1975) pp. 219 - 224.

6. It is not my intention to report fully on Freire's method or endorse it in every respect. I select those norms that seem relevant to me in the context of the Gospel.

7. Mark 4,3-9. 8. Matthew 13,24-30. 9. John 4,35-38. 10. Luke 9,62. 11. Mark 4,4.
12. Mark 4,7. 13. Mark 12,2. 14. Luke 13,6-9. 15. John 15,1-2. 16. Mark 4,30-32.
17. Matthew 11,29-30. 18. Luke 13,15. 19. Matthew 6,28-30. 20. Luke 17,37. 21. Matthew 16,3.
22. Matthew 5,45. 23. Matthew 5,14 24. Luke 6,46-49. 25. Luke 15,8-10. 26 Matthew 5,16.
27. Matthew 5,13. 28. Luke 11,5-8. 29. Matthew 24,41. 30. Matthew 9,16. 31. Matthew 9,17.
32. Matthew 23,23. 33. Matthew 23,24.      

34. Matthew 23,13; see also 16,19.

35. Matthew 6,19-20; 13,52.

36. Matthew 16,3.

37. A.FLANNERY, Vatican Council II, Dublin 1975, p.905.

38. P.FREIRE, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pp.75 - 82.

39. Matthew 13,14-15; compare Isaiah 6,9-10.

40. John 9,1-41. 41. John 9,17 and 9,30-33. 42. John 9,39. 43. Matthew 19,30; 20,16.
44. Mark 9,35. 45. Matthew 12,30. 46. Mark 9,40. 47. Luke 6,21 and 6,24.
48. Matthew 6,23. 49. Matthew 8,22. 50. Luke 5,30. 51. Luke 6,2.
51. Luke 6,2. 52. Luke 11,38. 53. Matthew 21,23. 54. Matthew 21,25.
55. Luke 6,3. 56. Luke 14,5. 57. Luke 20,24. 58. Matthew 22,41-46.
59. Luke 2,46. 60. Luke 2,52.    

61. John 12,27. Questions are central to John's Gospel. In this Gospel alone we find 161 of them. For a discussion of their importance, see J.WIJNGAARDS, The Gospel of John and his Letters, Wilmington 1986, pp. 35 - 46.

62. Matthew 27,46.

63. Samson presented such a riddle to the Philistines; see Judges 14,12-18.

64. The meaning of Jesus' parables will be explored more fully in the WALKING ON WATER book, The Signs of the Kingdom.

65. Compare Matthew 13,4-9 and 13,18-23.

66. Matthew 12,43 - 45. 67. Matthew 11,16 -17. 68. See also Psalm 78,2.

69. Examples are: Jesus' driving the merchants from the Temple square (Mark 11,15-17); his cursing the fig tree (Matthew 21,18- 19); his rebuke to Peter (Mark 8,33).

70. Luke 22,25.

71. Matthew 23,7-11.

72. Luke 16,5-8. Jesus says we can learn from the man's astuteness, even though he was wrong committing a fraud. The man who finds the treasure in the field, covers it up and buys the field, presumably does not tell the owner about the treasure. He, too, cheats (Matthew 13,44). What we can learn from such people is, for example, their single-minded commitment.

73. Matthew 23,1-36.

74. Luke 6,43-45.

75. Declaration, no 2, 3 and 14. A.FLANNERY, Vatican Council II, Dublin 1975, pp.799-812; see also W.M.ABBOTT, The Documents of Vatican II, New York 1966, pp.675-696.

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