Bethany, outside Jerusalem
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?” ( Mark 4, 30) Jesus turned to the land where he lived and the life lived around him to answer that question.
It was a changeable land. If you stand on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany near Jerusalem, as I did some years ago, you can still see ordered rows of olive trees growing beneath you. As night falls, the sky over the Mount of Olives raises questions of its own. Jesus knew this land.
Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, there’s the barren desert. Then, from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing land.
Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee; it influenced the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place and life around him.
In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observes that when Jesus went from the highlands of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level to the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, he entered a different world.
For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the hills and valleys around his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants challenging the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but were not around Nazareth.
Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt provided building material for houses and synagogues there. They were sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light. Light on a lampstand became one of his parables. (Mark 4,21)
Basalt also made for a rich soil where everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)
Farmland in Galilee
The volcanic soil on the land around the lake produced a rich harvest. The Jewish historian, Josephus, praised that part of Galilee for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and could choke anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.
Soil near the Sea of Galilee
The weather in the Lake District was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)
You won’t find these observations in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived and the parables he drew from it. He was influenced by where he lived, as we are.
And what about us? We’re experiencing climate change now, aren’t we? It’s going to influence our spirituality, how we see, how we live, how we react to the world around us.
May we gain wisdom from our time and place.