“Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that… The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see.”
When you think about it, teaching truth really is a thankless job. The picture is much like the mother who stands over her child with a spoonful of cough syrup, urging her to open her mouth. This is because truth usually goes down hard. Yet, if the mother is good and true and loving, she will not back down from her call to care for her little one.
Truth is not sexy or fun or new or original. Truth is old. And even when we have not heard it before, when truth first comes to us as a new thought, or when it seems novel because it is novel to us, even then, we often find that truth has the ring of something old, something that has been taught a thousand times before, something that has risen from antiquity and dusted itself off before us. When we hear truth, we get the sense that we should know this already, or that we have known it and simply allowed ourselves to forget.
And this is why teaching truth is thankless. If you will allow the illustration. It’s like selling commodes. Everybody needs one. Every home should have one. If a builder forgot to put one in a home, it would be the first thing the inhabitant would miss. Yet, unless one needs to use the rest room, who thinks about a commode. It’s a necessity, yes. But it is not cool. It doesn’t draw a crowd. Hardly anyone I know would buy a new home because it has a really great commode. They’d never say, “Hey come over to the house and take a gander at our new commode. Man, it’s a dandy!” We would do this with a new car certainly. We’re always anxious to show off a new set of clothes. We’d even be proud to show off a new kitchen appliance. But a toilet? Uh…no.
Let’s be honest. For the most part, truth is easily forgotten. It isn’t particularly ‘show-offable’. It isn’t ‘shiny’. Truth is not like a Christmas tree with lights and bows, it’s like a massive oak tree in the middle of a field. It’s not wrapping paper, it’s parchment. It not the ‘thing’ in the box, it’s the directions in the box that tell you how to put the ‘thing’ together. It’s not a slick car salesman, it’s a plumber or an electrician or a carpenter. It’s not pretty, it’s plain. It’s not Angelina Jolie in a swimsuit, it’s your mom in an apron. Truth is not a toothy guy with a soft smile coming to us live, via satellite. Nor is it a cute cuddly little baby with cherubic cheeks. Truth is an old man with weather beaten wrinkles on his face; wrinkles that tell us, “I’ve been around for a while. I am not new…I am old. I am very very old.”
And that is the job of the really great teacher – to bring us back again to those things that are so easily forgotten – to that timeless old man, to that mother in the apron, to that plumber, that parchment, that oak; to point us again and again back to the old and true things that we daily turn away from. Like the mother standing over the sick child, the teachers of truth sit down on the side of the bed and hold the spoon full of medicine up to the tight lipped little one and whisper, “Drink this down. It’s medicine. It’s good for you. You may hate it now, but I promise you, if you swallow this, you’ll feel much better in the morning.” As the song in the musical ‘Mary Poppins ‘ reminds us, the teacher may offer a little sugar to help the medicine go down, but she must not convolute the mixture, nor must she back off from the prescribed dose. A half spoonful will not do. There isn’t much point to it all if the mother gives the child less than or something other than what the doctor has prescribed.
Because this is true, we pastors, we preachers of the gospel, we teachers of God’s word who are called to proclaim truth – whether we are teaching in a small group bible study or whether we stand behind a pulpit in front of thousands of people – we Sunday School teachers and Youth Pastors – we Parents and Grandparents – we teachers of truth…if we desire to be great teachers, then we must teach old things. It’s OK to add a little sugar, a little spice, a little humor. It’s perfectly fine to use a cultural reference or a literary analogies to capture the attention and help understanding. But be sure not to convolute the message. Make sure that in the end you bring your students back to Moses, to Abraham, to Isaiah, to Paul. Bring your students back to Calvin, and Luther, and Augustine. And more than all, bring them back to Jesus.
This is our call. This is our task. We must not shrink back from it. For, as C.S. Lewis so aptly reminds us, the great theological teacher is committed to bringing his students back, again and again, to those same old, simple truths, that we all are so anxious not to see.