Skip to content

Jesus: Master of the Surprise


As “Master Teacher,” Jesus crafted creative, even unorthodox, ways to reach the people.  We’ll look at some examples, but first we must read a striking quote from Adventism’s charismatic co-founder, Ellen White. It’s from her very first counsel on education in 1872 (3T 133)” A key sentence is in bold type:

God never designed that one human mind should be under the complete control of another. And those who make efforts to have the individuality of their pupils merged in themselves, and to be mind, will, and conscience for them, assume fearful responsibilities.  These scholars may, upon certain occasions, appear like well-drilled soldiers.  But when the restraint is removed, there will be seen a want of independent action from firm principle existing in them. Those who make it their object to so educate their pupils that they may see and feel that the power lies in themselves to make men and women of firm principle, qualified for any position in life, are the most useful and permanently successful teachers.  Their work may not show to the very best advantage to careless observers, and their labors may not be valued as highly as are those of the teacher who holds the minds and wills of his scholars by absolute authority; but the future lives of the pupils will show the fruits of the better plan of education.

What we discover in the Gospels is that Jesus specialized in creative and unorthodox teaching methods. We could even call him “The Master of the Surprise.”  We’ll explore what that means in the light of some intriguing Gospel stories. 

Our agenda for this lesson is to explore four crucial issues facing Jesus (and us!)

            1. The content of what he said, falling under two headings:

                        a. People are more important than specific laws, even God-given laws.

b. Equality – of ethnic groups (Jew/Gentile), – of the sexes (male/female) in economic status (slave/free).

            2. How he said it: a blend of statements, commands, and stories

            3. How he modeled what he said.

            4. And another how: Did he do it quietly or publicly?

Three choices loomed large for Jesus (and for us):

            1. Should he challenge and confront the prevailing culture?

            2. Should he focus on the positive by affirming the good things in the culture instead of attacking evils?

            3. Should he strengthen the commitment to the moral law, while loosening the grip of specific cultural laws?

Examples from the Gospels show that he masterfully did all three.

1. He touched me: the healed leper. Touching a leper has never been good hygiene, but in Jesus’ day, the prohibition against touching a leper was serious stuff.

Luke 5:12-13 (NRSV):  Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 13 Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him.

Jesus was unafraid of contamination. In broad daylight, he healed the leper.  He could, of course, have healed him from a distance.  He could have just spoken a word.  But Jesus touched him. The memory of that touch may have been more powerful to the healed man than the healing itself.

2. Healing a wild and possessed foreigner. One day Jesus took his disciples into unclean territory, the “Decapolis” (“The Ten Cities”), a district on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. This was not Jewish country. Jesus went there to heal a demon-possessed wild man. When he sent the demons into a herd of swine, the people of the area were so alarmed that they begged Jesus to leave. For his part, the healed demoniac begged Jesus to let him go with him, but Jesus said no:

Mark 5:18-20 (NRSV): 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

Would there be a harvest? We shall see. 

3. Ignoring – but then healing a persistent woman’s demon-possessed daughter. Before returning to the Decapolis, Jesus visited another foreign territory with his disciples, Tyre and Sidon. The story is recorded in Matthew 15: (21-28) and Mark 7:(24-30). Blending the two accounts together yields this story:  Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon for some R&R, but didn’t tell anyone else that he was going. Somehow, a Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter discovered that he was there – but  had to overcome no less than five hurdles before she received her heart’s desire.

Normally we think of gentle Jesus, eager to help. But here the five hurdles make him seem so distant: First: Jesus’ secrecy. Second: Jesus’ silence. Initially, Jesus wouldn’t say a word to her. Third: The disciples’ hostility: “Send her away,” they urged Jesus. Fourth: Jesus’ seemingly cool attitude: “I am only sent to the lost sheep of Israel,” he said. Fifth and finally: Jesus’ off-putting statement about not giving the children’s food to the dogs. “But even the dogs get the crumbs from the master’s table,” the woman urged.

With that, Jesus threw open the windows of heaven:  “O woman, great is your faith,” he said.  And her daughter was healed.

What a teaching moment for Jesus as he nudged his male disciples in the direction of a more receptive attitude toward foreigners and women! He started out so brusque and distant. But in the end, his intention became clear.

Coming back from the surprise rendezvous with the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus visited the Decapolis again where he had commanded the healed demoniac to go back home and witness.

Mark 8:1-10 tells how he was greeted by a great crowd of some 4000 “foreigners”—plus their families. As told in Mark 6:32-34, Jesus had already fed more than 5000 Jewish men; here he feeds more than 4000 Greeks who came from the Decapolis, a rich harvest indeed from the man’s witness.

The healed demoniac had desperately wanted to go with Jesus. But Jesus refused his request, instead, sending him back home to be a witness. It worked. The people responded by the thousands.

On balance, as we ponder the wide variety of ways that Jesus worked with people, it nearly defies description. He could be gentle, but also firm, almost to the point of rudeness.

That wild diversity is a good model for us.

As I was preparing for this edition of the GoodWord, I tracked down a copy of a little sign that I remembered seeing by a trail on top of Mt. Howard in Oregon’s Wallowa Blue Mountains. Originally coming from a cable car entry in the little village of Chateau d’Oex in Switzerland, it carried the same message in three carefully nuanced languages:

In English it said: “Please do not pick the flowers.” In German it said: “It is forbidden to pick the flowers.” In French it said: “Those who love the mountains leave them their flowers.”

My first impulse was to put the German version at the bottom of a preferred list.  But then I realized that a German might not see it that way at all! Similarly, in the methods and message of Jesus, he could be both tough and gentle, illustrating a truth that the Apostle Paul put into words: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NRSV).

We could look at a host of other examples, all illustrating different aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Two stories, in particular, emphasize Jesus’ outreach to non-Jews: the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 and the story in Luke 10 of the good Samaritan who helped the wounded man on the road to Jericho. 

But looming large among the Gospel narratives, are the three stories of the “lost” found in Luke 15, the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost boy. The widow’s lost coin illustrates the experience of those who don’t even know they are lost.  Could that possibly be applied to the secularists in our day?

The lost sheep, on the other hand, represents those who know they are lost, but need help getting home; finally, the lost boy represents those repentant rebels who know the way home, and simply need to put one foot ahead of the other until they get there. Jesus reached out to all of those. Indeed, we can surmise that he also had a warm spot in his heart for the angry elder brother who was incensed that the father had thrown a party for the renegade younger brother. The story of the two brothers is worth reading in a modern translation. Here it is, in the Message, by Eugene Peterson:

Luke 15:11-32 “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’

“So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

“That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.

“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done, he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

“The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me  and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’

“His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

In short, Jesus reached all kinds of people. I suspect Jesus just might say, “Go and do likewise.” 


Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash


We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.