The Judaean Desert
This morning we drove just east of Jerusalem, out into the Judaean Desert along the Jordan River. This is among the smallest deserts in the world, and it’s unique because it’s a rock desert, not sand.
The Arabic word for “desert” is badia, which is where we get the word “Bedouin,” the name for nomadic desert tribes. The Hebrew word for “desert” is midbar; the three-letter root of which is דבר, “to speak.” Knowing this demands a question: “Who is in the desert to speak?”. The answer (in true rabbinic fashion): “With whom do you speak in the desert but with God?”.
The early Christian monks knew this instinctively. During the Byzantine period (5th and 6th centuries AD), the deserts here and all over became filled with monastic communities when committed Christians — who stagnated in the too-easy discipleship prevalent in “Christian” Rome and romanticized the earlier centuries of martyrdom and persecution — retreated to the wilderness places and deserts “to speak” with God.
To choose the monastic life is not usually considered an act of Christian global engagement, but instead is seen as a retreat from the world. This is true, but the monastic life is a peculiar retreat from the world, for the sake of the world. Monks and nuns remove themselves from the frenzied pace and practices of the world so that they may pray for the salvation of the world. Monks and nuns also remove themselves from the world to pray on behalf of the world. We can find great comfort — yes, even we Protestants, who have no monastic orders — that even now there are communities of brothers and sisters in Christ who devote their days to steady, constant prayer on our behalf.
As we draw nearer to Jericho, we are reminded of another gospel story that also takes place on the way to Jericho:
As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
~ Luke 18:35-43
The desert fathers and mothers would retreat to deserts like this and form communities, so that they may receive again the spiritual sight that is so often clouded by the things of the world. Today, only a few of these monasteries still function as communities of prayer. One of them is St. George’s Monastery.
St. George’s Monastery began in the fourth century with a few monks who sought the desert experiences of the prophets, and settled around a cave where they believed Elijah was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:5-6).
This Greek Orthodox monastery was built in the late 5th century A.D. by John of Thebes. He became a hermit and moved from Egypt to Syria Palaestina in 480 A.D. The monastery was named St. George after the most famous monk who lived at the site – Gorgias of Coziba.
~ from Wikipedia
Monasticism seems wildly outdated to many, but for a growing number — the liturgical renewal movement and the New Monasticism movement, to name only two — classical monasticism is more and more romanticized as the remedy for the modern world’s disease. Monastic communities — in the West, at least — have always served as the voice of challenge to the too-institutional Church; it is trendy to critique institutions (especially the church) right now. Members of monastic communities — as a rule — were deeply committed to loving one another as brothers or sisters in Christ, and to welcoming the guest as if they were Jesus Christ returned; honest community is rare, even in our churches, and true hospitality is more and more commodified as it grows harder and harder to find. Maybe there is something for our more and more isolated, devalued position in post-Christendom America that we can learn from the 5th and 6th century desert monastics.
I must admit, I am very drawn to the monastic ideal; I always have been. There is simplicity and intention and honest relationship inherent in monastic communities that is seldom found in my daily rhythm. I am also a good enough student of church history to know that this is not the first time that monasticism has become trendy as a reaction against “the way things are.” In fact, desert monasticism itself began as a reaction against the increasingly nominal Christianity surfacing in post-Constantinian Christendom. Maybe that’s why so many people are looking again at monasticism.
But what does that mean for me, as a someday pastor of a congregation? I am not the abbot of a monastery. I do not live among monks. I have not taken vows of poverty, celibacy, or silence. This is not my calling, nor is it the calling of the people I will serve.
Lord, help me to be faithful to the calling to which you have called me. Thank you for the witness and work of my brothers and sisters in monastic communities throughout the world and throughout the ages. Continue to call people to radical simplicity, constant prayer, and devoted service, whether in monastic communities or rural churches. Amen.
The Jericho Road
Our large bus stops along the side of the road near simple arches marked by the cross. We’ve arrived at the entrance to the Jericho Road, a pilgrim’s path from Jerusalem to Jericho, that would have been walked frequently in Jesus’ day, probably by Jesus himself. The path winds over and across the Wadi Qelt, one of several river-beds cutting across the Judaean Desert.
As we walk the cross-marked path, we all think over one of Jesus’ most familiar parables.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
~ Luke 10:25-37
As we walk along the narrow path, usually single-file, the first question that comes to mind, is: “What ‘other side’?”. Were the Priest and the Levite in the parable forced to climb higher or lower on the rock wall of the wadi to bypass the wounded and dying man?
We stop at a spot in the path wide enough for us all to sit and rest, and listen to some historical-cultural background to help us better understand the parable. We often title this parable, “The Good Samaritan,” and then subconsciously infer from the title that the first two passersby must be thought of as “the Bad Priest” and “the Bad Levite.” But as we listen to our teachers, we learn that that the priest and the Levite in this story would not have been considered “bad” for their acrobatic avoidance of the wounded man. On the contrary, Jesus’ listeners would have understood and approved. In mosaic law, the priest and the Levite would have been made ceremonially unclean were they to touch or even come near this dead/dying man. If they were unclean, they would be unable to do their jobs in the temple until after they had gone through the proper rituals to become clean again. Better to pass by — even if it it meant inventing an “other side” on a very narrow path — than to be temporarily out of work.
And then we learned the even more interesting bit about this parable, that only an understanding of some of the historical-cultural information would provide. The rhetorical direction of Jesus’ story would have probably led those listening to expect a Pharisee to be the third traveler on the road. Logically, if there was a priest, then a Levite…who’s next? Well, a Pharisee! And what is more, the Pharisees listening would have expected to come out as the hero. For the priests and the Levites, the Law must be followed absolutely, without exception (again, because it matters for their job, as much as for piety). For the Pharisee, however, the Law takes a backseat to the intrinsic value of a human life. In this story, a Pharisee would feel compelled to help the dying man, regardless of the religious regulations of cleanliness. This story was to be called, “The Good Pharisee.”
And, as he usually does in these parables, Jesus draws them in and then surprises them. A Samaritan!? No, no, no…Samaritans were as bad as Gentiles, for all the mixing with them they did. They were unclean, and what’s more, political dissidents and enemies of good, honest Jews. It would have been culturally and socially impossible for this man to encounter a “Good Samaritan” here, and yet this is the story Jesus tells.
And to what end? The set up for this parable is a man trying “to justify himself” by splitting hairs over who his “neighbor” might be. Jesus tells a strange story, and then asks the lawyer to answer his own question. “So, who was the neighbor?” The man is now caught, because everyone has heard the same story he has: “The one who showed mercy.” The Samaritan! The Samaritan was the better neighbor to the wounded man. Jesus masterfully gets the lawyer — who began this whole story from a position of social authority and status, putting Jesus on the spot — to find himself in the place of the wounded, robbed, dying man, and recognize that a kind enemy is a better neighbor than even the nation’s most respected members, the religious leaders! Talk about a hard sermon to swallow.
At the outset, the lawyer gives a good summary of the commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” We usually think of this as two commandments: Love God, Love Neighbor. Sometimes, we maybe even add the third, almost hidden commandment: Love Yourself. I’m not sure the parable allows us to see this as the third commandment (although, I do think more of us could learn to see ourselves with the same love that God has when he sees us). In the Torah, and in Jesus’ parable, the 3rd command to love is really, “Love Stranger.”
In Hebrew class at seminary, when we memorized this passage, we learned that a better translation is: “Love the neighbor to you who is like you.” There is lexical ambiguity with the phrase “who is like you.” Does this command mean we are to love only those neighbors who are similar to us? Easy enough. But what if the command means that all our neighbors, anyone we meet on the narrow road, is like us, and that we are commanded to love them as humans, because we are humans, and therefore we are all equally God’s beloved creation, and image-bearers.
Lord, who is my neighbor? Who are the strangers around me, and how am I inventing “other sides” on this narrow road? Open my eyes, my arms, and my heart to see, embrace, and welcome the strangers around me and make them my neighbors. Amen.
As we entered the town of Jericho, we stopped to listen to another gospel story that took place here:
[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
As we listened to the story of Zacchaeus, we were reminded again of how Jesus was constantly at work to welcome and include and restore the “strangers” he met. Zacchaeus (a Greek name, not Jewish), was a chief tax collector, a high-ranking official for Rome, and definitely not a welcome presence in Jericho. Jesus shifts the perspective again, and turns the outcast into the host, and welcomes himself to Zacchaeus’ house as the guest. In the process, Jesus gently invites Zacchaeus into a life of righteousness, and he is transformed, and begins immediately the work of transforming his community.
Old Testament Jericho (Tel)
After hearing these two gospel stories of Jesus turning strangers into neighbors, we come to the Jericho Tel, the archaeological site, and are brought to stand before a story almost exactly opposite. Here lies what is thought to be the foundations for the walls of Canaanite Jericho, the site of one of the Old Testaments most famous stories: Joshua, instructed by an angel (the “commander of the army of the Lord,” Joshua 5:14), leads the nation of Israel on marches around the walls of Jericho for six days, and on the seventh day they march seven times. The priests blow rams’ horns, The Israelites shout, the walls fall, and “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21). Everything. The Israelites only spare Rahab the prostitute, and her family, because she hid the two Israelite spies.
We wonder how this can be a story of the same God whom we have also seen graciously welcome Samaritans and tax collectors this morning. What is more frightening, this destruction is not limited to the people of Jericho. As the story continues, we discover that many Israelites are killed by the nearby city of Ai, because Achan, an Israelite, kept some of the “devoted things” of Jericho for himself. So Achan, along with his family, are also destroyed. Death upon death, destruction upon destruction, all in the name of the Lord. Hard to swallow, indeed.
Lord God, we love your Son, who loves us. Forgive us for moments like this, when your love becomes so familiar that your strangeness and holiness are forgotten. Help us to trust you, though we can’t understand you. Strengthen our faith, and give us the courage to read all of your Word. Amen.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
~ Matthew 4:1-11
Overlooking Jericho from the rocky bluffs of the Judaean Desert stands another monastery, first built in the 6th century, on the traditional site of Jesus’ forty-day fast after his baptism. It was during this fast that Satan came to tempt, or test, Jesus.
Testing is a strange and problematic theme running through Scripture. There is the legendary test of Moses, when God demands he sacrifice his only son Isaac. The Israelites often tested God — and Moses, his servant — as they wandered in the wilderness, provoking God’s wrath and then repenting, and always whining for greater and greater provision (of course, the Old Testament also talks often about how the whole wilderness wandering was God testing Israel’s faithfulness). And even though God commands his people, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he allows Gideon multiple little tests and proofs (of course, he also gives Gideon several, equally interesting tests). In fact, the very presence of the Midianites, and the other Canaanites who remained in the Promised Land, was a test from God!
And now we see our Lord Jesus led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested. These 40 days and 40 nights in rocky wilderness, without food or water or comfort or company, retell Israel’s wanderings in the Sinai desert for 40 years. Except now it isn’t God who is testing Jesus; Matthew says that it is Satan tempting Jesus. I wonder, being familiar with Job’s story, if they’re really all that different?
I wonder how many people suffering betrayal or loss or disappointment or slander or persecution would say that they feel like God is testing them. In seminary we were always warned against telling anyone that this is what must be happening. After all:
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
~ James 1:12-18
And yet, I wonder. After all, we have so many stories in our Bible of people — good people, people who are beloved of God and remembered for their righteousness — who, as we read in the Bible, God put to the test. I wonder if the difference is perspective. We shared a few of our own stories of times when we didn’t understand God’s reasons or purposes for the suffering we experienced; and yet, after the suffering was past and we came out of the wilderness, we saw that God often used those experiences for his good purpose, to draw us closer to him and to increase our faith. So is it simply that we should not say we are being tested until afterward, and then thank God that we were tested, and came through it?
The other, more important, difference between Israel’s 40-year wandering and Jesus’ 40-day fast is that, this time, Israel — represented in Jesus — is faithful and obedient, not succumbing to weakness or temptation. Praise God for this Savior, who suffered as we suffer, and who keeps us company in our distress.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
~ Hebrews 4:14-16
Again, none of this is very satisfying. I know that this is a part of theology with which I will have to struggle and wrestle and contend in my coming years of ministry. Personally, I find St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul a more and more convincing way to address this, but I am also becoming more and more okay with not needing to understand. I know that I am called to share in the sufferings of others, not explain the sufferings of others.
Lord, have mercy. Give me your strength to love others, and help me to sit with them in silence or lament. Amen.
This afternoon we drove further south, along the western coast of the Dead Sea, to Qumran, the site of the proto-monastic community of Essenes in Jesus’ day. I say “proto-monastic” because these Jewish men (yes, I mean men) were contemporaries of Jesus, who committed themselves to communal practices and rhythms very similar to much later monasteries and convents. They shared common meals, ordered their days around prayer and work, and took up the job of reproducing and preserving Hebrew manuscripts as scribes.
These copied manuscripts, along with the personal writings and community records, were preserved in earthen vessels and stored in the caves around Qumran. These scrolls were then lost and forgotten as the Essenes faded into history and the Zealots — another religious sect of Jews in Jesus’ day — retreated to Qumran as a refuge against the Roman conquest and destruction in the late 1st century. These scrolls, dried out and hidden in the caves, were only recently discovered again, after two thousand years, by shepherds throwing stones. After trading hands several times, and finally recognized as an invaluable historical and textual find, we now know the work of the Essenes as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
900+ manuscripts were found as scholars scoured the caves around Qumran. 200 of the scroll fragments are of Old Testament books we have in our Bibles, which affirms for us that the transmission of our sacred texts down through generations of faithful witnesses was, in fact, reliable. Most of the Old Testament fragments were of Psalms, which makes historical sense when we remember that the Qumran Essenes were a religious community, and would have copied the Psalms more than other books, to be used as guides to daily prayers. An interesting absence among these Old Testament books was the book of Esther. While the Old Testament books that were found are evidence for us of the faithful transmission of our Old Testament through the years, the selection of books is evidence of a still unset and varying canon of Scriptures during Jesus’ day.
The remaining 700-some other texts found are mostly inter-testamental writings, journalistic accounts of life at Qumran, and recorded rabbinic interpretations of Old Testament books. All of this shows us that this was a community of men devoted to the Word of God. Again, the monastic life is not widely considered a life of “mission,” for the sake of the world, but the careful and Spirit-guided work of these men has been of invaluable service to all of us who hold dear the Word of God. We have much to thank God for because of these faithful men.
Dead Sea Float!
I will spare you the images of us covered in Dead Sea mud. On our way back north to Jerusalem, we stopped at a “beach” to experience the incredible buoyancy of the salt-saturated Dead Sea. This was quite the experience, and a fun way to close a day trip around the Dead Sea.
A big day, and a huge post. Thanks for reading!