Where Jesus Walked :: Weekend Reading List

It is the “Fifth Gospel” Ernest Renan said of the Galilean landscape, “torn, but still legible.” The 19th-century explorer, philosopher, and theologian looked to archeology to give “form” and “solidity” to Scripture’s account of Jesus’ life and world.

In some ways the archeological account is “torn” because researchers have not found what we know to expect. In Unearthing the World of Jesus Ariel Sabar reports, “The Gospels say that Jesus taught and ‘proclaimed the good news’ in synagogues ‘throughout all Galilee.’ But despite decades of digging in the towns Jesus visited, no early first-century synagogue had ever been found.”

It wasn’t until 2009, along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, that the historical account became more legible: an archaeologist’s pick jolted into a wall from a first-century synagogue. To be fair, unearthing a full synagogue that Jesus may have visited was the crescendo of decades of work. “There’s no denying it” Sabar wrote of the discovery:

They’d found a synagogue from the time of Jesus, in the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Though big enough for just 200 people, it was, for its time and place, opulent. It had a mosaic floor; frescoes in pleasing geometries of red, yellow and blue; separate chambers for public Torah readings, private study and storage of the scrolls; a bowl outside for the ritual washing of hands.

The first-century world is coming into greater focus through discoveries like these. Galilee-born archaeologist Rami Arav has been leading digs for the past 28 years—his finds are significant for the world of faith. Sabar summarizes some of what his team discovered:

[Arav] and his colleague have uncovered a fisherman’s house used in Jesus’s day, a winemaker’s quarters from a century earlier and a city gate from Old Testament times, …a full-blown residential district, a marketplace, a fishing harbor, four Jewish ritual baths, and unusual plastered basins where residents appear to have salt-cured fish for export.

What can we learn from this today? Frankly, that the world Jesus lived in was pluralistic. Though we read what spiritual people were supposed to do in Jesus’ time, archeology reveals what they actually did—and the pressures they faced on a daily basis. One of the buildings uncovered, not far from the synagogue, was likely used for pagan worship.

“It’s ultimate chutzpah,” quips Richard Freund of the University of Hartford. The presence of a pagan temple in a Jewish town would have redefined daily life—possibly even explain Jesus’ condemnation of the town. Freund reflects:

It cannot but affect your spiritual life to every day go out and do your fishing, come home and try to live as a Jew, eat your kosher food, pray inside your courtyard house and then at the same time you’re seeing these plumes of smoke rising from the temple of Julia, and you’re saying, “Who are we? Who are we?”

Christ did not inhabit a world with clean spiritual lines—he entered the messiness of life, responded with grace and extended hope. It was along these same dusty shores of Galilee that he extended his calling: follow me. Give up all the pursuits this world offers—they aren’t pathways to success—follow me.

As for the continuing archeological work to understand Jesus’ world, Sabar points out, “Each layer of dirt, or stratum, is like a new page, and with much of Galilee still un-excavated, many chapters of this Fifth Gospel remain unread.”

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 63 (Listen – 3:25)
Matthew 11 (Listen – 4:06)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 64 (Listen – 2:01) Matthew 12 (Listen – 6:41)
Isaiah 65 (Listen – 5:00) Matthew 13 (Listen – 7:23)

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Christian Suffering :: Throwback Thursday

By Søren Kierkegaard

[Jesus said,] “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” — Matthew 10.22

What is decisive in Christian suffering? It lies in the fact that it is voluntary–“on account of the Word” and “for righteousness’ sake.” The disciples left everything to follow Christ. Their sacrifice was voluntary. Someone may be unfortunate to lose everything he owns and has; but he has not given up the least thing. Not like the Apostles! Herein lies the confusion.

In today’s Christianity we take ordinary human suffering and turn it into a Christian example. “Everyone has a cross to bear.” We preach unavoidable human trials into being Christian suffering. How this happens is beyond me! To lose everything and give up everything are not synonymous. To the contrary, the difference between them is infinite.

If I happen to lose everything, this is one thing. But if I voluntarily give up everything, choose danger and difficulties, this is something entirely different. When this happens it is impossible to avoid the trial that comes with carrying Jesus’ cross. This is what Christian suffering means, and it is a whole scale deeper than ordinary human adversity.

Nowadays we can become or live as Christians in the most pleasant way and without ever risking the slightest possibility of offense. We can continue to make ourselves comfortable by scraping together the world’s goods, as long as we stir into the pot what is Christian as a seasoning, an ingredient that almost serves to refine our enjoyment of life. This kind of Christianity is but a religious variation of the world’s unbelief, a movement without budging from the spot.

Christ unabashedly speaks of what would await his disciples when they witnessed to him in the world. The possibility of offense consists in being persecuted, ridiculed, cast out from society, misunderstood, and finally put to death.

Whether you experience adversities in life, whether things perhaps go downhill for you, though you as a Christian will most assuredly bear these sufferings patiently, unlike many others in the world, however patiently you bear them, this suffering is not yet akin to Christ’s suffering.

To suffer Christianly is not to endure the inescapable but to suffer evil at the hands of people because you voluntarily will and endeavor to do only the good: to willingly suffer on account of the Word and for the sake of righteousness. This is how Christ suffered. This alone is Christian suffering.

*Abridged from Søren Kierkegaard’s writings, compiled in Provocations by Charles E. Moorein.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 62 (Listen – 2:09)
Matthew 10 (Listen – 5:07)


Go and Learn

[Jesus said,] “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” — Matthew 9.13

The Pharisees were liberal in their view of who could be saved, says Hebrew University Historian Daniel Schwartz. There was no debate among Jewish scholars in Jesus’ time that Israel had broken God’s covenant. The key question of their day was how the covenant would be restored—and the answer extended from theology into the realities of daily life.

The Sadducees believed restoration with God was possible only for a certain kind of person: those participating in Temple life in Jerusalem. This was a significant problem for most ancient Jews, as they were spread throughout the Near East. Travel was time-consuming and enormously risky. Moving was almost always unthinkable—land is life in an agrarian society.

The Pharisees gained power because they offered Jews outside Jerusalem an alternative which didn’t require leaving their livelihood to follow God. In short, they believed that keeping the law was the way a person’s standing with God was restored. They were fastidious about the law because it was their only hope.

“The natural inclination of man’s heart is toward religion,” observes Martin Luther. Our hearts constantly search for ways to save themselves.

Although they believed their views were vastly different, the Pharisees and the Sadducees both crafted ways to repair the covenant themselves. The Sadducees wanted people to give up on their cities, neighborhoods, and vocations—believing God’s plan was limited to a particular culture and place. The Pharisees looked at their Bible like a rulebook, missing—in Jesus’ opinion—the entire point of the Scriptures.

Jesus rebuked the critics who were angry he offers himself just as freely to the poor, the sinful, and the outcasts as he did to the religious.

“Go and learn” is a rabbinic phrase which means the hearer has missed something in the Scriptures and needs to study with greater attention. Jesus wasn’t a sage who commanded his followers to study the laws and do their best to live flawlessly. Any prophet could have done that. Jesus’ foundational claim was that he was the son of God who came to extended God’s mercy on the world. Restoration was possible—through him.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 61 (Listen – 2:23)
Matthew 9 (Listen – 4:56)


The Depths of Suffering

And Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. — Matthew 8.26

In some ways, the prosperity gospel’s value proposition is appealing: faithfully obey God and he will keep your life privileged and comfortable. It’s a quid pro quo—if you can muster up faith, then he will respond to your strength. But this is not the way it worked for the saints’ lives recorded in Scripture.

God chose not to save Israel from slavery, but to rescue them in it. “Ah!”—the prosperity delusion says—they were sinful; they had a lesson to learn before the Exodus. It’s clear disobedience is an element of their story, but obedience and faithfulness aren’t demonstrated anymore after the Exodus than they are before or during it.

Consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were faithful, but God didn’t save them from the fire—he saved them in it. “There are four men walking around!” the king exclaimed. Daniel wasn’t spared from receiving the death penalty, but he was rescued in the depths of the pit.

Had Daniel expected God to protect him from the embarrassment of arrest, the anguish of being sentenced to death, or even the fall down onto the sandy blood-stained floor, the great man of prayer would have missed what was happening. Where was God when Daniel was falling into the pit? At the bottom, we learn, waiting in the depths of suffering.

Jesus’ disciples falsely believed that their faith in Christ would exempt them from experiencing the storms of life. When the tempest lashed against them they cried out, “Save us!” It is no different from us.

Like with Israel, God redeems us from the slavery of sin and brokenness. Like with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Gods meets us in the fiery struggles of our world. Like with Daniel, God is the only thing sufficient to spare us from death’s sting. Yet this is not all he does.

Limiting the story of the gospel to individual salvation focuses our faith on ourselves. If our lives are the focus of Christ’s work, then going through a storm is a sign God has lost control. Yet if the gospel is about a greater work of renewing and restoring a lost and broken world, then we can trust God to be Emmanuel—God with us—in the storm.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 60 (Listen – 3:55)
Matthew 8 (Listen – 4:09)


Roads and Stars

[Jesus said,] “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” — Matthew 7.13

The Romans were the first culture in history to prioritize roads. The Law of Twelve Tables, one of Rome’s founding legal documents from around 450 B.C.E., required roads to be no less than eight feet wide with 16 foot widths in turns—far wider than the single-path trails which were the then-historical standard for human travel.

Rome’s cultural expansion, economy, and military scaled rapidly as their citizens traversed the 250,000-mile network of cobblestone.

Jesus’ message not to trust the pathways of the empire is less counter-cultural in modern time. Gallop has published a deluge of research revealing Americans’ rapidly-eroding trust in institutions. While most people in Rome’s day looked toward their government to deliver happiness, success, and meaning, most people in our day do not.

The institution of government does not represent all Americans well, but other cultural institutions—like the movie industry—may better reveal our loyalties. Even the title of the award-winning film The Fault in Our Stars suggests what many believe: we are fine; but there are problems (and people) outside of ourselves that keep us from the life we really want.

Though we don’t look to our empire in the same ways, we still live on Roman Roads—pursuing the interests of our personal kingdoms through a vast network of personal expression, commerce, and self-protection.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in us,” laments Cassius in Julius Caesar. Perhaps Shakespeare is confessing what we are slow to admit: the problem really isn’t just in our stars, it’s in our relentless pursuit of self.

This idea may be what Viktor Frankl was reflecting on when he wrote:

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

The wide path nearly guarantees comfort and luxury, but is insufficient for meaning and fulfillment. Jesus’ invitation requires we exit the roads on which we pursue ourselves—for, in his words, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 59 (Listen – 3:54)
Matthew 7 (Listen – 3:31)