Category: Casual Commentary

May 27, 2020

The Sermon on The Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29)

The “Mount of Beatitudes” provides one of the most beautiful vistas in all of Israel. Beginning at the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, it slopes upward to a height about four hundred feet above the water. It is called a “mountain” but in fact is one of several foothills leading from the Lower Galilee to the Upper Galilee, culminating about their miles to the north in majestic Mount Hermon, ten thousand feet above sea level. Standing at the top of this storied foothill you look down on an awesome sight. Immediately below is Capernaum and Tabgha (where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish) with the entire expanse of the Sea of Galilee glittering in the sunlight. From the prospect you see why the Israelis call the lake “Kinneret”, for it truly is harp-shaped. About twelve kilometres long and six wide, the lake is bordered by the might Golan Heights on the east, and the “Horns of Hittim”, a towering outcropping of jagged heights, on the west. Just a bit south of the Hittim horns is Tiberias, one of Israel’s four sacred cities. This is where much of the Talmud was written over the course of hundreds of years. Immediately on the right, about five kilometres away and one hundred meters higher than where you’re standing, is the ancient town of Safat, another of Israel’s sacred cities, the home of the “Kabalah”, the handbook of ancient Jewish mysticism. Today it’s a favourite Jewish tourist destination, rife with artists’ studios, and colourful old synagogues.

There are two constructions on the crown of the Mount: one is a Catholic nunnery, the other a beautiful chapel built with funds supplied by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. No one know why he built it, but it may have been and effort to leave a “good taste” with the historical record of his life. Sweeping down the hill to the very edge of the lake is a citrus orchard redolent with fragrance and peace. Between the mount and Safat on the west, the rocky slope is festooned with luscious green grass (in season) and herds of sheep. The entire setting is idyllic.

Adjacent to the chapel is a small grove of tall eucalyptus trees shading a fascinating outcropping of twelve basalt rocks “placed” in a circle of about thirty feet in diameter. This circle slopes downward with the contour of the mount and looks like the rocks were deliberately placed as some kind of monument. The rocks stick out of the ground at a height of two to three feet. There, in the shad of the eucalyptus trees, I imagine Jesus sitting down, his disciples lounging against the rocks as “lawn chairs”, and “opening his mouth” to teach. Such a pastoral picture for the greater “pastoral” sermon of all time.

May 20, 2020

The DNA of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4:23-25)

The Galilee provided a doorway to the greater Roman province of Syria. Its territory essentially comprised northern Palestine, bounded by the Jordan river on the east, the Mediterranean ocean on the west, and the mountains of Lebanon on the north. From Mount Hermon, 10,000 feet above sea level in the north, the “upper Galilee” descended in plains and marshland (“Lake Hula”) to the “lower Galilee” four-hundred feet below  sea level where the Sea of Galilee sat in respondent beauty. Then, as it descended further, following the course of the Jordan (the “Down-rusher”),  it gave way to the Jordan Valley, and ultimately the Dead Sea, fifteen-hundred feet below sea level. The Galilee of Jesus’ time was essentially 40 miles from north to south, and 25 miles east to west. Heavily treed, well watered with streams from the northern mountains, and fertile with black volcanic soil, it was a great exporter of olive oil, vegetables, and fish. Cut off from Jerusalem by Samaria, it stood culturally alone, producing rugged farmers, fishermen and tradesmen — the “salt of the earth” labourers who spoke with a rich accent, seemingly unperturbed by their alienation from the Jewish city-dwellers in Jerusalem. When it was asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, those elite urbanites might just have asked, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” The Galileans ignored this snobbery and kept fishing.

As Jesus called disciples to follow him, he concurrently began to minister to the needs of the Galileans. He “proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom” by preaching and teaching in the synagogues, and he demonstrated the Good News by healing the sick.

The synagogues were a natural place for Jesus to preach and teach. Brought up with a home synagogue in Nazareth, he was culturally tuned to local synagogues as renters of worship, education, and the administration of civil law. They were like local town halls, schools, and religious community centers. Most towns had several. Jerusalem in Jesus’ time (according to rabbinic tradition) had close to five hundred. As a preacher Jesus was uncompromising in announcing the inevitability of the Kingdom of Heaven. As a teacher he expounded on the meaning and significance of that inevitability. And, as a healer, he championed deliverance from suffering. Little wonder he drew crowds.

May 13, 2020

The First Disciples – Matthew 4:18-22

Like his cousin John , Jesus too had need of followers, or “disciples”. These were not “hangers-on” but leaders-in-the-making. Jesus knew that unlikely as they were they would nonetheless change the world. But, they certainly didn’t appear to be world changers. Indeed, the first four were two pairs of brothers, all of them fishermen. And, if the catch in “Kinneret” (Sea of Galilee) was like it is today, they were experts in catching sardines! There is no mention of their qualifications, education, or predisposition to spiritual matters. They were just “there” and Jesus said, “Follow me”. So Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped everything and did just that — “immediately”, says Matthew. Amazing! Could it be that the word had spread about the dove and voice from heaven a few weeks previously at Jesus’ baptism? Or was it that John the Baptist’s disciples had told their acquaintances that Jesus was the next big thing? We don’t know. All we do know is that Jesus’ invitation was irresistible.

May 6, 2020

Jesus’ Ministry Begins – Matthew 4:12-25

John the Baptist’s imprisonment precipitated Jesus’ “withdrawal” from Nazareth to Capernaum in the Galilee. The regional’s was known as “The Galilee of the Gentiles”, looks down upon by the citizens of Judea, but critical to international trade as it was on the trade route between Egypt and Damascus (called “the Way of the Sea”). As such it was cosmopolitan and alive with the bustle of camel caravans and the colourful languages and fashions of the outside world. For Jesus this was a critical move — he left his provincial home town Nazareth and established “worldly” Capernaum as his ministry base — as it was often said, “the world comes through Galilee”. Jesus placed his hand on the pulse of the world’s heartbeat, and brought Good News to people.

Jesus had a succinct message, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” This was the novel message for the Gentiles, but had familiar ring for any Jewish person. Whenever a Jew recited the “Great Shema” (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) he took upon himself the “yoke of the kingdom” (De. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Nu. 15:37-41). This confession of faith, recited every Sabbath in the synagogues of Judah, was pregnant with hope, a hope of a time when Israel’s messiah would rule the world from Jerusalem. Even though they were under the yoke of Rome they dreamed of a day when another yoke, the yoke of freedom, would see them working with Messiah to bring righteousness and justice to the world.