Catholic Thinking – The Apprentices of Jesus


Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology, University of Nottingham, UK,  has held the Chair of Historical Theology at the University for ten years and is a priest of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton on England’s south coast. Professor O’Loughlin spoke at a Eucharistic Convention in Auckland in July this year and gave a series of lectures around the country about ministry, discipleship and the sacraments. His visit was supported by Good Shepherd College – Te Hēpara Pai, as well as the Dioceses of Auckland, Palmerston North, Christchurch and Dunedin. The following is a synopsis of one his presentations: ‘Journeying as Disciples of the Lord with St Luke’s Gospel’.

“Becoming a follower of the Christ is not a done deal, but a work in progress.”

Professor Thomas O’Loughlin.

We have all heard the word ‘disciple’ hundreds of times. We even have very fixed idea of what the disciples of Jesus looked like as they followed Jesus around Palestine on his journeys. Disciple is just one of those words we use in church and do not think much about. But in the middle of the last century a group of Christians in Germany – faced with the horrors of Hitler’s Nazis – became convinced we needed to think about the whole matter once more.

It is very easy to think of our religion in terms of identities – and most situations encourage us to think in this way – so that I say ‘I am a Catholic’ or ‘I am a Christian’ or ‘You are a Buddhist’ or ‘She is a Muslim.’ The box is ticked, there is little more to say, and we can just see life as following accepted conventions; for example, ‘Jews go to synagogue’ or ‘Catholics go to Mass’ and that is that. But what if I recognised becoming a follower of the Christ was not a done deal but a work in progress? Now I would not start from my identity, but from my failure to recognise what being a Christian entailed, and I would become aware that at any time I might only glimpse what it means to be a disciple.

Life Long Learning

“One is always becoming a Christian.”

It is very easy to get complete command of any body of facts that can be learned by rote, downloaded from a book, and then trot out predictable answers to old questions. What is far more challenging is to learn slowly how to master a skill – whether this be the skills of a plumber or someone who seeks to build the Kingdom of God – because one must always be open to new problems, new challenges, and to note while we are hopefully getting better, we are still far from perfect. One will only know one is a Christian at the end of a life time of trying to make life better, seeking to value love, seeking to minimise destruction, and seeking to bear witness to God the Father’s love for all humanity manifested in Jesus the Anointed One. One is always becoming a Christian.

So growing and learning what it is to be a disciple is a life-long process. Indeed, being a disciple is far more like being an apprentice in a trade than being a student in a school boning up on a subject. The student has all the answers at hand if only she can get them all into her head; that done, she can pass the exam and ‘be’ something. The apprentice learns a bit here, learns another bit there, meets this situation and that, makes mistakes and has to start over – messy, slow, but constantly in touch with the real world. Indeed, as the real constantly changes, the apprentice has to think up new solutions to problems that may never have existed before. If we think about Jesus being followed by his apprentices, and ourselves as his apprentices, then we radically alter our vision of who we are, what we are about, and what Christianity will mean for us today, and tomorrow.

Picasso, the painter, once said, ‘tradition is having a baby, not wearing your grandfather’s hat’. We often think of religion in terms of the past, and of holding on to the past; but if we are apprentices then the challenge is the future and making it a little more like the world of justice, peace and love that God’s love beckons us to build. Tradition is not a having, but a making. We hand on the vision of Jesus to that it is more there tomorrow than today.

“If we think about Jesus being followed by his apprentices, and ourselves as his apprentices, then we radically alter of vision of who we are, what we are about, and what Christianity will mean for us today, and in tomorrow.”

The Lectionary

In this life of being apprentices, the great school is the liturgy. There we not only praise the Father through his Son, but we recall in the gospel each week the events, stories, teaching, and parables that were to challenge the apprentices in the first churches – and which still challenge us today. Indeed, in the Year of Luke in the lectionary – and 2019 is such a year – this theme of discipleship is a major theme and explicitly set out as such in lectionary’s plan.

Lectionary: a book or listing containing a collection of scripture readings to be read aloud in the services of the Church on a given day or occasion. The present Catholic lectionary was introduced March 22, 1970. It contains a three-year cycle of readings for Sundays and solemn feasts, a two-year weekday cycle, and a one-year cycle for the feasts of saints. And it contains readings for a large variety of other Masses. There are also responsorial psalms that follow the first readings for each Mass, along with Gospel or Alleluia verses to follow the second readings.

The whole of the Year of Luke is broken into eight units (see Lectionary, pp. lii-liii) but there are three units focussing on discipleship.

  • Lectionary unit 4: towards Jerusalem.
  • Lectionary unit 5: pardon and reconciliation.
  • Lectionary unit 6: the obstacles facing those who follow Jesus.

Unit 4: Towards Jerusalem

This unit is devoted to the first part of the ‘Travel Narrative’ and its theme is the qualities Jesus demands of those who follow him. It runs from Sunday 13 to Sunday 23, and contains 11 Sundays. Its sections/themes are listed in Table 1 below (items that are only found in Luke’s gospel are shown in bold).

Table 1: The Year of Luke: Ordinary Time Sundays 13‒23

Sunday 13

The journey begins

Sunday 14

The mission of the seventy-two

Sunday 15

The Good Samaritan

Sunday 16

At the meal in the house of Martha and Mary

Sunday 17

The friend in need

Sunday 18

The parable of the rich fool building barns

Sunday 19

The need for vigilance

Sunday 20

Jesus brings ‘not peace but division’

Sunday 21

Few will be saved

Sunday 22

True humility

Sunday 23

The cost of discipleship

Unit 5: Pardon and reconciliation

This unit consists of just one Sunday: Sunday 24. Its focus is on the ‘gospel within the Gospel’: Jesus’ message of pardon and reconciliation. It is devoted to Lk 15 (all but three verses of which are only found in this gospel), which consists of a string of three parables:

1. the lost coin;

2. the lost sheep; and

3. the prodigal son.

Unit 6: The obstacles facing those who follow Jesus

This unit is devoted to the second part of the ‘travel narrative’ and explores the obstacles facing apprentices of Jesus. It runs from Sunday 25 to Sunday 31; its sections/themes are shown in Table 2 below.

Table 2: The Year of Luke: Ordinary Time Sundays 25‒31

Sunday 25

The unjust steward

Sunday 26

The rich man and Lazarus

Sunday 27

A lesson on faith and dedication

Sunday 28

The ten lepers

Sunday 29

The unjust judge

Sunday 30

The Pharisee and the Tax-collector

Sunday 31

Meeting Zacchaeus

Thomas O’Loughlin ‘Making the Most of the Lectionary, A Users’ Guide (

In many ways this is the most characteristic section of Luke’s gospel for none of these sections, stories, incidents are found elsewhere in the gospels.


If we think it is better to think of ourselves as apprentices to the Christ rather than being Christians, then each of these Sunday gospels challenges our assumptions, prejudices, biases, and certainties. Faith is an adventure to build the Reign of God; it’s anything but our inherited ‘old school’ customs. The apprentice is always learning, and at the same time making a difference – hopefully for the better – to those around them.

Professor Thomas O’Loughlin FRHistS, FSA, the Humanities Building, University of Nottingham, UK NG7 2RD.

Published in WelCom August 2019

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