In early summer, I look for good commencement speeches. I look for speeches that offer sound advice for living, insights that help me wear my life better, timeless truth dressed in fresh language. Most of what I find offer little more than ordinary boilerplate, quickly and easily forgotten. A few rise above the ordinary and are worth remembering.
There was Steve Jobs’s 2005 speech at Stanford; Nora Ephron at Wellesley in 1996; JFK at American University in ’63; Toni Morrison at Wellesley in 2004; Michelle Obama, City College of New York, 2016; Kurt Vonnegut at Agnes Scott College in ‘99. And there was Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth in 2011. Here’s part of what he said.
“Way back in the 1940s there was a very, very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star and easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are – my peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: it is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.
After Jesus had been teaching his disciples for a while, they had a sort of commencement. He gave them some authority and sent them out on their own to continue what he began (Matt. 10:1, 5-15). He warned them about the hardships they would face (vv. 16-23). And he gave them some sterling advice. “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher,” he said, or more literally translated, “it is sufficient for the learner that he may be becoming like the teacher” (v. 25a). It’s enough for you that you may be becoming like your teacher.
The first disciples tried hard to be like Jesus, their hero, their perceived ideal, and disciples have been trying ever since. “I’m trying to be like Jesus,” the Janice Perry hymn goes; “I’m following in his ways. / I’m trying to love as he did, in all that I do and say.” And always we fall short. The first disciples deserted him when their test came (Matt. 26:56). We desert him when we “become so well-adjusted to [our] culture that [we] fit into it without even thinking” (Rom. 12:2 The Message).
But don’t give up hope. We will always fail to be like Jesus because we must fail to be like Jesus. We’re not meant to be like Jesus, not meant to think like we think he would think, not meant to do what we think he would do. “What would Jesus do?” may be a good place to start a life of discipleship, but it’s no place to stay. Trying to pattern ourselves after Jesus may be a good first step in discipleship, but sooner or later we’ll learn that the pattern doesn’t fit. Trying to be like Jesus doesn’t allow us to be the unique, original persons God is creating us to be.
There’s only one way, I think, in which it matters that we may be becoming like our teacher. By maturing in his relationship with God and with others (Luke 2:52), Jesus grew into the fullness of his unique, original identity as a child of God. That’s why we are called to a life of Christian discipleship, to learn from Jesus, our teacher, how to grow into the fullness of our own unique, original identities as children of God – not like anyone else, not even like Jesus, but like our own authentic selves.
In a classic Hassidic story retold by Martin Buber, before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (Tales of the Hasidim). In the coming world, they will not ask me: “Why were you not Jesus? Why did you not become a perfect copy of your teacher?” They will ask me: “Why were you not Richard? Why did you not fully become the unique, original, authentic individual God meant you to be?”
Questions for reflection
(1) Who have been your most influential teachers about life? What made them influential for you? What essential lessons did you learn from them, lessons that have stayed with you and that you continue to apply in your life?
(2) You outgrew some teachers and moved on. Others remain your teachers, and from them you are still learning how to live life at its best and most authentic. What’s the difference between these two kinds of teachers, the ones you outgrew and the ones who still offer you something important? What is the best, most essential thing you gain from those who are still your teachers?
(3) What is there about Jesus that makes you choose him as your teacher about life? In what instances or on what occasions do you not trust him to be your teacher? In what specific instances do you follow teachers other than Jesus? Whom do you follow, and why?