Ah, here's a word we should be asking about! Discipleship means "student," from the Latin discipulus. But that's deceptive: Today's student doesn't have to crack a book to qualify-just show up. That never would have flown in ancient times, when disciples lived with their teachers night and day and imitated their actions as well as listening to their words.
Discipleship has a wonderful evolving meaning between the two Testaments. Originally it described Israel's relationship with God. The Lord was the nation's ultimate teacher through the instructive power of the Law. The psalms frequently record Israel's pleading: "O Lord, teach me your ways!" Because God dwelt in the midst of the nation in the Jerusalem Temple, the people did share quarters with their Teacher.
Later, the prophets had protégés of their own: Elijah with Elisha or the school that added to Isaiah's writings. The sages of the later Wisdom tradition rooted instead for the domestic school: fathers teaching sons and mothers daughters. The Wisdom Woman, a personification of divine wisdom in Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom, called disciples to herself as well.
A natural progression existed between the roles of student and instructor. Disciples lived with their teachers until they were ready to become rabbis or prophets themselves. So it was startling when Jesus came along and made permanent disciples of his followers. "You have only one teacher and father in heaven," he told them. (Saint Paul later rejected the idea that Christians could "belong to" anyone but Jesus.) That harked back to the early design of God being the nation's sole instructor.
Another distinguishing feature of Jesus' disciples is that he chose them, not the other way around. Jewish disciples generally picked their own rabbis, as you might choose a college or major for yourself today.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Jesus' invitation to discipleship was that it took place in the ordinary context of life-a fisherman's workday-not in a religious setting like the Temple. It required an immediate response. Discipleship then deepened "along the way" with Jesus, as the past with its possessions and priorities were gradually relinquished in favor of a radically new life.
Deuteronomy 4:1; Psalm 25:4-5; Proverbs 1:20-33; Ecclesiastes 12:9; Isaiah 2:3; 48:17-19; Matthew 4:18-22; 23:8-9; Mark 8:34; Luke 10:1-20; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
To Live in Christ: Discipleship, by Robert Fabing, S.J. (Paulist Press)
Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri Nouwen (Ave Maria Press)
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