Climbing Mt. Arbel
This morning we began with probably our most strenuous hike of the trip: Mt. Arbel. Mt. Arbel is not mentioned by name in the Bible, but it is the highest point on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, so it is impossible to not imagine that it factored in at least some of stories we have in the gospels. Looking around the region of Galilee over the past few days, it is clear that if Jesus wanted to get to “a deserted place,” as he does so often in the gospels, then he would need to go to a wild and rugged place like Mt. Arbel.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone… (Matthew 14:22-23)
On the way up the mountain, we stopped half-way to rest, and we overlooked the town of Migdal, or Magdala. This small town is best known for one of its inhabitants: Mary Magdalene.
Our guide asked us what we knew about Mary. The first two responses? 1) She was a disciple of Jesus, and he had removed seven demons from her; and 2) She was a “lady of the night” (there were children present…). Mary Magdalene was indeed a disciple of Jesus, and was a witness of both his crucifixion and resurrection. And Luke 8:1-3 does mention Mary’s history with demons:
The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Luke also mentions, which none of us remembered, that Mary (along with the other women in this company) was wealthy enough to provide for Jesus and the disciples. How did we miss that?
Mary Magdalene, however, is nowhere named to be “the sinful woman forgiven” from the passage before, nor is she “the woman caught in adultery” in John’s gospel. These unfortunate associations were made by later church fathers (yes, fathers) seeking to downplay Mary Magdalene’s significance.
This conflation of texts was given sanction in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great (540–604) in a famous homily in which he holds Mary up as a model of penitence. Pope Gregory positively identified the unnamed anointer and adulteress as Mary, and suggested that the ointment used on Jesus’ feet was once used to scent Mary’s body. The seven demons Jesus cast out of Mary were, according to Gregory, the seven cardinal sins, which include lust. But, wrote Gregory, when Mary threw herself at Jesus’ feet, “she turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”
~ from Biblical Archaeology‘s website
The lesson here? Our words have the power to build up and to tear down. For centuries, one of Jesus’ key disciples has been belittled and maligned as a former prostitute and an unfortunate penitent, simply because a few people wanted to make a certain point in their sermons. Is the same true of us? Do the words we say about others — whether untrue or mistaken — leave a false legacy behind those brothers and sisters in Christ?
Lord, save us from wicked words. Let the words of our mouths build others up, not tear them down. Help us to create and sustain a world of peace and unity for others with the words we say. And above all, guide us by your Word, and help us to really listen to what you say, so that we might live our lives upon it. Amen.
Sea of Galilee
After looking out over the Sea of Galilee from the heights of Arbel, we came down to sail on the Sea of Galilee in a boat. We made just a short loop here, so there wasn’t enough time to really listen to one of the most famous stories that took place here, but it was in the back of our minds the whole time.
…but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
And early in the morning [Jesus] came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:24-27)
It is I.
Do not be afraid.
What comfort! In the midst of life’s storms — which come up suddenly and blow us out to the open waters, off course, without the means to return to the safe and familiar shore — it is often a terrifying surprise to find our Jesus walking calmly to be with us. A surprise, because we were not looking for a friend, only survival. Terrifying, because Jesus comes in unthinkable ways, when and where we least expected him.
My dad pointed out that a lake like the Sea of Galilee in the states would be surrounded by million dollar lake homes and filled with recreational boaters and water sports. But the Sea of Galilee is relatively empty: a few fishers, and a few tour boats offering rides to pilgrims. The waters are a place of business (and then, only by necessity), not pleasure, in Galilee. The sea is closely linked in the ancient Israelite mind, with sheol, “the depths” or “the abyss.” The world below the surface of the waters is dangerous, especially when you understand the world as Genesis 1 describes it. If we really do live in a God-created — God-breathed — dome of air inserted between the waters above and the waters below, then to float precariously on the surface of the waters below is to take your life into your own hands.
Understanding this, we see why it was so scary that the disciples’ boat had been pushed “far from the land.” If one must venture out between life and death, one had better stick close to shore.
Understanding this, we see why Jesus’ appearance was so terrifying: he is walking on the water. No boat. No protection. Here is the rabbi we thought we knew, precariously perched between life and death. And he’s telling us, “Do not be afraid”!?
Understanding this, what come next should surprise us even more:
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31)
Peter — this good Jewish boy (and probably the elder of the young disciples) from Galilee, this veteran fisher of the Sea of Galilee, taught from an early age to regard the waters with a healthy respect and a holy fear — understands that his Rabbi must be master of life and death, to walk between the two like this. Peter’s understanding leads him to make a wholly unexpected request: “Command me to come to you on the water.”
There have been so many interpretations of what happens here that it seems impossible to say something new about Peter walking on (and sinking into) the Sea of Galilee. Whether or not it even happened, whether or not Peter was the fool or the hero, whether or not Jesus was angry with Peter, what matter’s most is that Peter — and all the disciples — begin to understand that their Rabbi from Galilee is more than they first thought.
When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32-33)
This Rabbi from Galilee is master of life and death, “the Son of God.”
Lord, give us faith, but when we fail, give us your hand and help us. Amen.
As we made our way out of Galilee, we made one last stop: Beit She’an. Again, a city the gospel writers make no specific mention of, and yet we can assume was a significant part of living in Galilee. As small Nazareth must have seemed to the people of Sepphoris, so Sepphoris must have seemed small to the citizens of Beit She’an — better known in Jesus’ day as Scythopolis — one of the Gentile Ten Cities, or Decapolis. Nine of the Ten Cities are located around the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias, the Gentiles called it), but Scythopolis, or Beit She’an, was on the west of the Jordan River, south of the Sea of Galilee.
Here we learned about Roman architecture and civic design, public sanitation, and other wonders that Greece and Rome introduced to the Jews. It is hard not to be impressed, not to wish to see it in its glory during the great Pax Romana. It must have been beautiful. What must the Jews have thought of such a city? What must Jesus’ disciples? Would they have shunned it, or been repulsed by its splendor, because it was “Gentile” and not Jewish?
It is hard to argue that such advances in sanitation and culture were evil because they were made by Gentiles. But don’t we make similar judgments of the medical and cultural innovations made by the “Gentiles” around us? And how can we expect modern medicine or media to have a Christian conscience when we Christians have so isolated ourselves from it? Do we have any right to be shocked or scandalized by our society’s lack of morality (as we judge it) when we insist on withdrawing from it and creating Christian sub-cultures, “holy huddles,” away from society? I wonder.
“How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14)
We finished up our tours in Galilee, and drove south to Jerusalem. Even though we went south, we were going “up” to Jerusalem. This pilgrimage to the city of David is mostly uphill, because Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains. It was during such pilgrimages that the Israelites would sing “the psalms of ascent,” our Psalms 121-134.
On this sabbath evening (Jewish shabbat begins Fridays at sundown and ends Saturdays at sundown), I can’t help but offer up Psalm 121, a pilgrim’s song for ascending to Jerusalem.
Psalm 121, A Song of Ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.