Question: Jesus was obviously a teacher. His teachings are recorded in the gospels. Many people, including non-Christians like Mahatma Gandhi, have admired the teachings of Jesus even if they weren’t or aren’t Christians. Today, maybe because of the popularity of yoga, people speak of special teachers as gurus. As someone who practices yoga, in what sense do you think Jesus can be regarded as a guru?
Updated January 14, 2018
Answer: This is a timely question since we are entering the ordinary time of the church year and in the Revised Common and Roman Lectionaries we are hearing those portions of the gospels that deal primarily with Jesus’ teachings. Especially in Year A, when we are reading the Gospel of Matthew sequentially in our Sunday liturgies, Jesus is presented as a teacher. But Jesus’ teachings are spread throughout all four canonical gospels.
Many believers downplay the image of Jesus as a teacher because they see this as a lesser designation than Jesus as divine Son of God. But in the light of the traditional understanding of a guru in Indian thought, this could be a false dichotomy. Michael Amaladoss, SJ, an Indian Catholic theologian, wrote a little book on images of Jesus used by Asians entitled The Asian Jesus (New York: Orbis Books, 2006). Certainly “guru” is one such image, although Amaladoss points out that while the term popularly refers to a teacher it more properly should refer to a guide. “Used in a spiritual context, it refers to a person who has walked along the way and has experienced, or at least has had a glimpse of, the goal one is looking for. Therefore she/he is capable of guiding disciples in their own search.” But he also notes that “In the advaitic (non-dual) tradition in which true spiritual experience consists in realizing one’s oneness with the Brahman or the Absolute, the guru is seen as divine, because she/he has experienced his/her advaitic oneness with the divine.”
In this sense Jesus is a guru. Christians would even call Jesus sadguru or “true guru.” He is “the one who comes from heaven” and “testifies to what he has seen and heard” (John 3:31-32). More than that, in the Gospel of John he proclaims his oneness with God the Father. Yet, like a guru, with few exceptions he was not experienced by those who heard him teach as a god but as a wise human being. Many found in him what they were looking for and followed him; others rejected the authority of his teaching because he wasn’t of the right lineage. He came from Galilee, not Judea. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asked Nathanael (John 1:46). Nathanael may not have been disparaging Nazareth as much as indicating that there was no prophecy of a Messiah coming out of Nazareth. Jesus responded by saying of Nathanael, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (1:47). Nathanael asked Jesus where he was staying. Jesus invited him to “come and see.” If we want to see if Jesus meets our expectations, we must dwell with him.
The Jews of his time had an ideal vision of what a Jewish teacher or rabbi should be and model. A rabbi should comment on the traditions of the fathers and guide people in observing the Torah. Instead, Jesus presented a new teaching, a new Torah. In the Sermon on the Mount he said concerning the interpretation of the commandments, “you have heard it said by the fathers of old, but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-48). He suggested praying, fasting, and giving alms secretly so as to avoid being praised for performing acts of piety (Matthew 6:1-18). He broke cultic taboos such as a literal observance of the Sabbath and taught that human needs take priority over the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14). He transgressed social restrictions by eating and drinking with tax collections and sinners (Matthew 9:10-13). Though he visited the Temple and paid the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27), he protested vigorously the commercialization of the Temple cult and drove out the buyers and sellers of the sacrificial animals (Matthew 21; Mark 11). These actions aroused the hostility of the religious leaders and led to his arrest and trial by the Sanhedrin and to his suffering and execution under the occupying Roman authorities. Amaladoss notes that many Asians regard Jesus as a guru and admire his moral teachings. But Mahatma Gandhi went further and held up Jesus’ passion and crucifixion as an example of non-violent struggle.
There are ways in which Jesus did not act like a guru in the Indian sense. For one thing, yoga gurus traditionally did not seek out disciples; disciples sought a guru. That was the traditional approach. Of course, modern yoga teachers develop brands for their type of yoga and market themselves through social media and workshops in order to attract disciples. Yoga is a business and yoga teachers in the modern world must make a living to support their families. They don’t live in caves and depend on the charity of local villagers. While there were people who sought out Jesus, Jesus also called disciples to follow him. Matthew reports Jesus calling Andrew and Peter, James and John, while they were fishing (Matthew 4:18-22). Luke makes the calling of these fishermen-disciples more dramatic (Luke 5). John has disciples already called (Andrew, Philip) bringing others (Simon, Nathanael) into the company of the disciples.
Another way in which Jesus was unlike traditional yoga gurus is that the traditional gurus were ascetics or renunciates living solitary lives in caves in the forests and mountains. Jesus was sociable; he ate and drank with scribes and Pharisees as well as with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus gathered a community of disciples around him and laid down some guidelines governing how they should relate to one another through practices of forgiveness and reconciliation (Matthew 18:15-35). Moreover, traditional gurus in India, like Jewish rabbis, would have had male disciples. It is clear from the gospels that Jesus also welcomed female disciples.
In spite of having a community of disciples, Jesus did not settle into a permanent location like an ashram to which disciples could be drawn and live a common life. This does not mean that Jesus didn’t envision settled communities of his disciples. Certainly congregations and monasteries were formed in the early centuries of Christianity. But Jesus was an itinerant teacher who taught about the coming reign of God and demonstrated the wholeness of life under God’s rule by healing the sick and casting out demons. People encountered him on the way and had to learn to travel lightly if they followed him. To a rich young man who wanted to follow him, Jesus said: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…. Then come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). The young man was not able to do this because he was too committed to his possessions. This prompted Peter to ask, “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus acknowledged their commitment and promised that those who have left family and possessions to follow him “will receive a hundredfold” (Mathew 19:29).
Perhaps most importantly, Jesus did not communicate esoteric knowledge like many of the traditional yoga teachers. Gurus initiated their devotees by stages into their knowledge gained through experience. To be sure, Jesus sometimes imparted teachings to the disciples apart from the crowds (Matthew 5:1-2). But he didn’t teach the disciples anything that couldn’t be taught to everyone else. Indeed, at the end of Matthew’s gospel the disciples are commissioned to go to all the nations, baptizing and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Moreover, the fact that the disciples followed Jesus on his way didn’t give them any special insight into understanding him. They often missed the point or failed to understand (which could also be the case with disciples of any guru). The failure of the disciples to understand is especially emphasized in the Gospel of Mark.
What Jesus taught was what “the kingdom of heaven is like.” He taught in parables rather than laying down legislation spelling out in precise detail what one’s relationship to God the Father and to others should be because these stories and analogies served to evoke a different worldview that cannot simply be encapsulated in a law code. That’s what the Pharisees had with their 602 rules for how to observe ten commandments. One compelling image of the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of Matthew is the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) in which a king extends the fellowship of his son’s wedding banquet to wider and wider circles of people after the originally invited guests declined to come when invited. The Gospel of Luke includes the winsome parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son as well as a different version of the parable of the wedding banquet.
In the parables of Jesus all of life in all its relationships is placed under the generosity of God and the only proper human response to such generosity is gratitude. Any message in which this is not regarded as the fundamental dynamic of life under God is not authentic to the teachings of Jesus.
Finally, Jesus is the sadguru, the true guru, not just because of the truth of his teachings but because of the truth of his life. Many gurus, especially some who came to the West, disappointed their students with morally questionable behavior—as have Christian ministers and priests. Jesus does not disappoint those who invest faith in him. Jesus is the guru who is among us as one who serves rather than is served and gives his own life as a ransom for all people (Mark 10:45).
Pastor Frank Senn
The image above the article is a picture of mosaics by V. Balan on the facade of the Chapel at Dharmaram College in Bangalore, India. It is based on an oil painting by M. P. Manoj which in turn was based on the original drawing by Joy Elamkunnapuzha, CMI. This Asian Christ is portrayed as a guru who is seated in lotus position to teach and gives two mudras (hand gestures). His right hand shows the mudra of Abhaya, symbolizing protection, peace, benevolence, and dispelling of fear, while his left hand displays the Varada mudra, symbolizing “open-handed” generosity such as charity or the granting of wishes.
The following image is a Byzantine icon of Christ the Teacher.