In the Near East “wisdom teacher” is a recognized spiritual occupation. I was taught that there were only two categories of religious authority: one could be a priest or a prophet. That may be how the tradition filtered down to us in the West. But within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was also a third, albeit unofficial, category: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being.
They spoke to people in the language that people spoke, the language of story rather than law.
Jesus not only taught within this tradition, he turned it end for end. Before we can appreciate the extraordinary nuances he brought to understanding human transformation, we need first to know something about the context in which he was working.
Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not that interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him.
Rather, he stayed close to the ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself?
These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.
-Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and one of CAC’s [Center for Action & Contemplation] core faculty members.