The Church : A Glorious mixture

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I wonder how many of us have realised that Jesus’ ministry was an extremely localised affair for the most part, and largely limited to Galilee. Sure, he does have some trips to Sidon, to the Decapolis over the Jordan; and in all four Gospels is of course killed in Jerusalem. Only in John do we get the sense of other trips to the holy city, and a journey through Samaria. I just wondered what inferences we could draw from the geographical setting of Jesus’ ministry.

Galilee was in the far north of the united kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and although since the 4th century BCE it had been heavily Hellenised, like Judah it remained largely an agricultural area apart from its cities. Indeed, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom seems to have been delivered largely to those close to the land, and frequently to the impoverished. We hear of day labourers, of those forced to beg since they were incapacitated by blindness, of injuries such as paralysis and lameness, and even worse leprosy, that scourge of the ancient world; and the accounts of Jesus’ meeting with the Baptist stress lack of wealth and usually reflect badly on Kings and those in power. His supporter-apostles were drawn from the fishing communities of the Sea of Tiberius, not people who were broke, but whose employment cut them off from the respectable in the towns who found them smelly and uncouth. These were the kinds of people despised by the wealthier elites, both in Galilee and in Jerusalem, but as we note, often feared by them because of potential insurrection; and in Mark’s Gospel right from the start we hear of spies sent from Judah to keep tabs on Jesus. Galilee, along with Israel/Samaria, had been taken over by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and they imported many foreigners into the area, hence its description by Isaiah as Galilee of the nations/Gentiles with their pagan gods. Those left behind with the removal of the elite from the cities were precisely the agricultural workers thought too insignificant to deport. In the absence of other leadership they, along with the Samaritans, developed their versions of Judaism.  Quite clearly Galileans had a bad reputation and were viewed in dubious terms from Jerusalem. By Jesus’ day it was part of Roman Judaea, taxed by Rome and overseen by legions in Syria just to the north. Certainly their Herodian puppet kings who built massive temples and cities in the area were only quisling Jews. When the revolt came in 66 we know that it was in part a civil war with decided economic overtones, and retribution was frequently exacted against the Greeks and Romans living in the cities. Since Christianity became very largely an urban phenomenon, as we see from Paul’s Letters, we tend to forget this and miss many of its radical implications.

Yet it was from among these despised and derided people that Jesus arose, and from among whom his ministry began, as we see in our Gospel. (Matthew 4:12-23) Galilee it appears, despite its poor press, was ripe for responding to Jesus’ radical Gospel, and its fishermen apostles had a future in store which would take them out to the furthest reaches of the known world. We should not however see Galilee simply as a dull backwater, for as our Old Testament Reading from First Isaiah (8:23-9) reminds us, Galilee though devastated by the Assyrians, was also part of a great trading route across from the Transjordan via the fertile valley of Jezreel to the coast, and the fabulously wealthy pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon. The Way of the Sea had prospects, outreach, and ultimately all that foreign influence so abhorred by the south would pay off. Well at least in Christian terms.

Quite clearly First Isaiah, writing in the 8th century BCE, wanted to send messages of hope to his people in the dark days of the Assyrian conquest; and wise man that he was, he knew that no earthly empire lasts forever. His message is one of God’s punishment of his faithless nation, yet of forgiveness and hope. He would even adopt the imagery of the invader, speaking of the ‘happiness of men dividing the spoil’, so reminiscent of invading armies and the chaos they wreak. How extraordinary that his vision, taken from shame, war and collapse should be used by Matthew to herald the ministry of Jesus. But whilst we must think he knew something of its original meaning, Matthew deliberately adopted this image to explore the dramatic significance of the advent of Jesus which he knew, as he wrote his Gospel in the aftermath of the failed Jewish Revolt, was to have consequences for the world far in advance of the explosion of the Assyrians so many hundreds of years previously. That he placed this passage with its reference to First Isaiah immediately after the temptation of Jesus by the devil is no accident. This is meant to be the story of Matthew’s great ‘warrior’ Jesus, who defies the devil and whose ministry would take his message of God’s love for his creation out to the entire world. We pass this passage over in bored silence at our peril.

In our Reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian churches, (1 Cor 1:10-13.17) we begin to explore what this explosion of the faith out among the Gentiles would entail. This requires some imaginative effort on our part, as we inherit the faith from 2000 years down the line, established, informed, with its doctrines well worked-out, and its structures well established. But this was not the case some 15 years after the Resurrection and my guess is that things were all pretty fluid. ‘Christian’ groups of widely divergent values combated each other, and some, such as the ‘Spirituals’, a group of elitist know-alls in Corinth caused mayhem in the communities, and were clearly far from their founder’s values, not merely in theology but in the implications for the practice of their faith in daily life, as is so clear in the letters. Paul, devoted follower of Jesus, really had to struggle to enable these groups in this vibrant pagan city to understand the life and message of Jesus. We, sharers in the spoils of so rich an inheritance, should see this as an opportunity and invitation to delve ever deeper into our origins. For it is in knowing where we come from that we can understand and judge our own faith and our response to it

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