“Is that a millstone?!?!” I cried as I stepped down the bank of the Sea of Galilee. The large, freshwater lake dominates not only the northern region of Israel but also the life of Jesus, and when I saw that large millstone in the water, I couldn’t help but remember one of his most striking teachings.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for sin are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to sin.”Luke 17:1-4
Could Jesus have been standing right where I was, some 2000 years ago, pointing at this exact same millstone? Surely the chances are slim, but to this day, I still can’t get that image out of my mind: Jesus, dangling his toes in the water, using the time to teach his disciples a few good lessons about life in the Kingdom of God.
Which reminds me: If there is one thing we’ve got to remember about Jesus, it’s that he wasn’t a Christian. Jesus was a Jew and a Jewish rabbi on top of that — and he wasn’t even the only one. There were other rabbis and other teachers and preachers in Jesus’ day, just as there were plenty before him and plenty after him. This is an important place to start when trying to understand Jesus’ life and teachings.
According to the Gospels, Jesus spent a lot of time in and around the Galilee teaching the people he met there and picking up a few famous followers along the way. His “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew 5-7 is even thought to have taken place on one of the hillsides next to the sea.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”Matthew 5:1-6
Today, we call that hill the Mount of Beatitudes, which is fitting. It might be one of the most idyllic places in all Israel.
Follow the shoreline north of the Mount of Beatitudes, and you’ll run into the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. After a day of walking and teaching, everyone’s bound to get hungry, so it makes sense that here around the Galilee we find Jesus feeding thousands upon thousands with only a few fish and some loaves of bread.
Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, Jesus took the seven loaves and the fish, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled, and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.Matthew 15:35-37
Indeed, the stories of Jesus seem to pile on top of each other around the Sea of Galilee. Only about two football fields down the hill from the Church of the Multiplication is another special spot, the Church of the Primacy of Peter. More of a small chapel than a church, the Primacy of Peter sits right up against the bank of the sea. Small, basalt pebbles line the shore making the contrast in colors here rather striking. But the site itself is famous for something else — another meal story.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them, and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.John 21:9-14
To some, this lakeside stone table was the beginning of Christianity proper. After their breakfast of fish, Jesus turned to the Apostle Peter and commanded him three times to “feed my sheep,” a saying that many have interpreted over the years as making Peter the first leader of the Church. In fact, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks, only a mile or so farther up the shoreline is the ancient town of Capernaum. There Peter lived, worshiped, and taught others about Jesus after his ascension.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the Sea of Galilee and not mention the moments Jesus and his disciples actually spent on the lake itself, fishing in its waters and rowing against its waves.
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And waking up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. Then he said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were terrified and amazed and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water and they obey him?”Luke 8:22-25
“Who then is this?” they asked. Who indeed. Until that moment, Jesus could have been just another teacher, just another rabbi. True, his disciples had chosen to follow him and not someone else, but others had done the same thing with other teachers. Even John the Baptist seems to have had his own disciples at this time. (See Matthew 9:14 — “Then the disciples of John came to Jesus, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’”)
Did John the Baptist present a challenge to Jesus? Was he, a little like the Pharisees maybe, preaching a slightly different path? If he was, it wouldn’t have been strange. Quite like today, in the first century and throughout the Galilee and the Holy Land, there were many preachers and teachers. Though they would have agreed on many things, they wouldn’t have agreed on everything. And that’s the world in which we find Jesus in the Gospels. Here is a teacher among many, until something sets him apart.
One of the unfortunate consequences of studying the past is we tend to flatten it. We make complex cultures look simple and diverse peoples look alike. In short, we generalize — “All the Pharisees believed this,” we think; “All the Jews thought that,” we say — when in reality things were much more complex and the range of thinking much broader.
I learned this lesson well visiting one last town along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. On the western side of the lake is Migdal, or Magdala. In Scripture, we learn of it as the hometown of Mary the Magdalene. Not too long ago, archaeologists discovered the remnants of a synagogue there. By itself, this wouldn’t have been surprising, except that it was the second synagogue they discovered in Migdal, and both dated from the same time period in a town that wasn’t large enough to need two of them. So, why build a second synagogue?
Could it be the same reason why, when I walk down my little neighborhood street in Cincinnati, I see five different churches in barely five blocks? Could ancient Judaism have been far more diverse than we have so often thought, even in its beliefs about God and the nature of faith and what comes next? And, if that is so, where did Jesus fit in all of it?
Over the next three weeks, we’ll begin to uncover an answer.