"In the Dust of the Rabbi": Living as a Disciple of Jesus
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We hear Jesus give one invitation over and over again in Scripture: "Come, follow Me." This article explains what true discipleship looked like in Jesus' time and what that means for us who are seeking to follow Him - and to become like Him - today.
Optional Lectio Divina Prayer
- Read Luke 5:1-11.
- Meditate on the words.
- Speak to Christ about this passage.
- Rest and listen in God’s presence.
- Discuss together.
It’s astonishing that of the thousands of Jewish people in his day, Jesus chose a man like Peter to be his disciple.
Peter did not come with an impressive resume. He did not stand out for being among the smartest or holiest or most gifted or talented people of his time. Nor did he hold any position of leadership among the Jews: He was not a priest. He wasn’t part of the elite ruling class. Nor was he a religious expert like the Pharisees. He was just an ordinary, uneducated fisherman working on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
And it’s clear from the Gospels that Peter was far from perfect. He does exhibit some moments of great faith. But he’s also known for making big mistakes, overestimating his abilities (Lk 22:33), misunderstanding Jesus (Mt 16:22), limiting forgiveness (Mt 18:21) and lacking in trust (Mt 14:30). Peter even denies Jesus three times and abandons him in Christ’s greatest hour of need (Mt 26:75).
Peter was an ordinary person like us—someone who had good intentions but didn’t have it all together—and yet Jesus still called him to be his disciple. And Peter’s life was transformed through this process of discipleship: He eventually became a great Christian leader, a holy saint, a courageous witness to Christ and even a martyr in Rome.
That gives us great encouragement. Jesus doesn’t call those who are already equipped and ready to be amazing, holy Christians. Rather, he equips those whom he calls. It’s the call that comes first. And if we answer the call, he will heal us of our weaknesses and equip us to live as his disciples. If Jesus can take weak, imperfect, far from holy men like Peter and transform them over time into saints, he certainly can do the same with us.
Discuss: Does knowing that Peter was not necessarily the most gifted and talented person in the world encourage you? What does this teach us about being a disciple of Jesus?
DISCIPLES OF JESUS: IMITATING THE MASTER
In the first-century Jewish world of Jesus, being a disciple was all about one key word: imitation. When a disciple followed a rabbi, the goal wasn’t merely to master the rabbi’s teachings but also to imitate the way he lived—the way he prayed, studied, taught, served the poor and lived out his relationship with God day-today.
Jesus himself said when a disciple is fully trained, he “becomes like his teacher” (Lk 6:40). And when St. Paul formed disciples of his own, he exhorted them not just to remember his teachings, but also to follow his way of living: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
Though the word disciple (mathetes) means “learner,” biblical discipleship was very different from modern classroom learning. On a college campus, a professor might give lectures to students in a large hall; the students take notes and they’re tested on the material later in the semester. But there’s usually not an ongoing personal relationship and sharing of life between professor and student in the university setting today.
In Jesus’ time, however, following a rabbi meant living with the rabbi, sharing meals with him, praying with him, studying with him and taking part in the rabbi’s daily life. A rabbi’s life was meant to be a living example of someone shaped by God’s Word. Disciples, therefore, studied not just the text of Scripture but also the “text” of the rabbi’s life.
This is why Jesus didn’t simply ask his disciples to listen to his preaching in the synagogues. He said, “Come, follow me” and basically invited them on a three-year camping trip as they journeyed throughout Galilee together during his itinerant ministry.
Think about that: day in and day out for three years living with Jesus! How much his disciples would have been influenced by his example! They’d notice the way he woke up early to pray. They’d witness his compassion in helping the sick. They’d be struck by his pressing need to go out to the sinners, Gentiles and outcasts. They’d also observe how he taught the crowds, debated his opponents, called people to repent and offered them mercy. Much of Jesus’ way of living would have “rubbed off” on his disciples.
Discuss: What difference does it make that Jesus not only taught His disciples but also shared his life with them?
OUR DISCIPLESHIP TODAY
So if we’re going to live as disciples of Jesus today, we must aim for a lot more than believing a set of doctrines and following the rules of our Faith. All that, of course, is essential, but we must go deeper and consider what’s happing interiorly: are we moving closer to Christ, encountering him anew each day? Do we notice his ongoing call to conversion, his prompting us to give more, love more and surrender more? A disciple is aware that Jesus is constantly inviting us to live more like him in all areas of our lives—as St. John Paul II said, “to think like him, to judge like him, to act in conformity with his commandments, and to hope as he invites us to”4. Being a disciple, therefore, entails a lot more than simply saying and believing the right things. It’s a whole way of life—his way of life transforming me.
This theme of discipleship reminds us of how being Catholic is not a stagnant reality: “I identify on this survey as Catholic”…. “I attend Mass on Sundays”….”I believe all the Church’s teachings.” All that is necessary, but living as a disciple involves so much more. Discipleship is something intensely personal and dynamic. It entails movement and transformation. The true disciple of Jesus is never stagnant, never just going through the motions. He never settles for mediocrity, for the bare minimum, for a “check the box” approach to faith. Rather, a true disciple is striving for greatness—always on the lookout for the next step of faith to which God is calling him. He’s intentionally aiming to root out sins and weaknesses in his life, grow in new virtues and deepen his friendship with Christ. He’s intentionally trying to imitate Christ.
Indeed, a disciple of Jesus recognizes two fundamental truths:
A. The truth about himself: his many weakness, failures and areas where he falls short of living like Christ.
B. The truth about what he’s made for: being conformed to the image of Christ, living like him, thinking like him and loving like him.
A true disciple knows what he’s made for: transformation in Christ (B). But he also knows the many ways he falls short (A). Discipleship is all about moving from A to B.
When our Catholic Tradition speaks about “growing in holiness,” “pursuing sanctity” and “becoming saints,” it’s basically describing this life-long process of a Christian disciple being ever more transformed by God’s grace—being changed into Christ’s likeness “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).
Discuss: How does this idea of imitating Christ as a disciple change the way you perceive the Christian life?
FOUR ENCOUNTER MOMENTS
According to one ancient Jewish saying, if you encounter a rabbi, you should “cover yourself in the dust of his feet and drink in his words thirstily.” The expression draws on a well-known sight for ancient Jews: disciples were known for walking behind their rabbi, following him so closely that they would become covered with the dust kicked up from his sandals. It was a powerful image for what should happen in the disciple’s life spiritually. Disciples were expected to follow their rabbi so closely that it’s as if they would be covered with their master’s way of thinking, living and acting.
Thousands of years later, we’re called to do the same. Though we walk on roads of pavement and not dust, we are still called to be disciples—to follow our Rabbi, Jesus Christ, so closely that we are covered with his life, changed and made new.
But how can we do that today?
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
We can’t do it on our own. We need God’s help. We need his grace. That’s why it’s important to focus on the four practices that marked the earliest disciples of Jesus in Acts 2:42. We can think of these as four key habits of a disciple where we encounter Jesus’ guidance and power today—helping us to grow spiritually far beyond what we could ever do on our own.
Let’s recall how the disciples in the early Church devoted themselves to:
- The Teaching of the Apostles
- The Breaking of Bread
While there are many creative ways one could sum up the practices of a disciple, following the biblical model is best. For when the Catholic Church has summed up the Catholic Faith, it has often turned to these four points in Acts 2:42 to help categorize what it means to follow Jesus. In fact, the four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are traditionally seen as being based on these four points.
So if we want a roadmap to make sure we’re on the right track in our relationship with Jesus—if we want to keep the fire of faith A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher. — Luke 6:40 growing—think of these four points from Acts 2:42 as logs we add to the fire. These are four foundational “encounter moments” in the life-long journey of a disciple. The more we grow in prayer, fellowship, the sacraments and forming our minds with the revelation of Christ, the more we encounter Jesus ever anew and immerse ourselves in the dust of our Rabbi.
For example: We ponder an aspect of the apostolic faith that stirs us to praise or challenges us to make a sacrifice. This helps us become more like Christ. We sense in prayer God calling us to change, be better in a certain area or trust him more. We experience his love and mercy in the sacraments and long to come back again. We encounter Jesus in fellowship with our neighbor, the poor, the suffering and other Christians who encourage us in the faith and provide many opportunities to grow in the love of Christ by loving the Christ who abides in them.
These four habits help us encounter Jesus ever anew—to experience his call to conversion, his gentle patience and mercy, his comfort and encouragement and his healing grace that incrementally changes us into his likeness.
Discuss: Looking at these four habits (apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of the bread, and prayer), what steps do you need to take to be better “covered in the dust of your rabbi,” Jesus Christ?
Make a concrete plan for being “covered in the dust of your
rabbi.” How can you regularly develop the habits in Acts 2:42
to better imitate Jesus? (Look for more articles from FOCUS on
each of the four key habits of a disciple).
Imitation: One key word that sums up the life of a disciple is “imitation.” A disciple should be “covered in the dust of the Rabbi,” constantly striving to imitate Christ.
Acts 2:42: The four habits of a disciple of Jesus are 1) The Teaching of the Apostles, 2) Fellowship, 3) the Breaking of the Bread and 4) Prayer.
4 John Paul II. (1979). Catechesi Tradendae, 20 [Encyclical Letter]. Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/johnpaul-