Forty yards. That’s it. Forty yards.
The ancient town of Capernaum isn’t readily known as Jesus’ hometown. It’s not Nazareth or even Bethlehem, but for most of Jesus’ ministry, Capernaum appears to have been something of his home base.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”Matthew 4:12-17
Capernaum was a small border town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and like any border town, that meant different rulers and different jurisdictions were just a hop, skip, or jump away. Make someone mad on one side of the line and all you’ve got to do is pop on over to the other side. That tends to help when you’re a poker and a prodder like Jesus.
But back to those forty yards. Capernaum was never a big town, and it was dominated by a synagogue. Matthew in his Gospel tells us that Jesus met Peter and Andrew there, along with James and John. They were all fishermen, and they would have lived in town, not far from the synagogue — approximately forty yards, in fact.
Why is forty yards important? Just think about the conversations! The Gospels tell us that in Peter’s house Jesus cured both the disciple’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15) and a paralytic who had to be lowered down through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). This is remarkably easy to picture today, since the current church was built literally on top of Peter’s house! Most significantly, though, all of this took place a stone’s throw away from the synagogue where Jesus and his disciples would have learned, worshipped, and taught.
A couple of weeks ago, we asked where Jesus fit into a complex web of Jewish teaching during the first century. He was one rabbi among many, some of whom he considered close associates (like John the Baptist) and many of whom he was in continual dialogue with throughout his ministry. How close were their teachings? How far apart were their disagreements? Forty yards?
Standing there on the footsteps of the synagogue in Capernaum, I could imagine Jesus debating with Peter, Andrew, James, and John the finer points of the Torah, the Jewish Law. Did they ever think they would be planting the seeds of a new religion? I doubt it. And yet, when you’re talking religion and truth and all that God desires, forty yards can seem like a world away.
Just listen to the conversation Jesus had standing on the lakeshore where the people of Capernaum would have launched their boats.
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”Matthew 8:18-22
Jesus’ demands on his disciples weren’t necessarily stricter than other rabbis’ demands at the time, but they were pointed and particular. They might have even been radical. Nowhere else did this more prove to be the case than in his critique of his day’s vision of ritual purity (think about Jesus’ tendency to associate with “tax collectors and sinners” — see Matthew 9:9-13) and in the assertion of his identity as the Son of Man. Remember that story we mentioned earlier about Jesus healing a paralytic in Peter’s house? Well, it quickly became heated.
And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town. And some people were carrying to him a paralyzed man lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, child; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”— he then said to the paralytic —“Stand up, take your bed, and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.Matthew 9:1-8
Jesus didn’t pull any punches linking himself so closely to God. The disciples and their own followers would only strengthen and deepen that connection as time went on and Jesus’ “movement” grew, ultimately resulting in a split within Judaism between those who believe Jesus is God and those who don’t.
And yet, even that took a while. For years after Jesus died — a story we’ll get to next week — his followers continued to meet with their fellow Jews in the synagogues, including that one in Capernaum. There they were still debating and discussing the finer points of the Law and the place of Jesus within God’s story of salvation. But then…we also know that barely forty yards away, Peter would turn his little house into a place of worship quite different from the synagogue next door. Peter’s house of worship would place Christ at the center, and those forty yards would feel like a million.
Such is the way of things. Because Judaism and Christianity are so remarkably close together, they often feel so impossibly far away. Maybe that is the beauty of two Jewish rabbis taking a group of Christian pastors to the Holy Land where we each got to talk about Jesus from within our own traditions. We had — and still do have! — so much to learn from each other.
After all, we’re only forty yards apart.