A Tale of Two Cities

Blog1-22I would like to take a line from Sunday’s Gospel and apply to it to us today:

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. … He went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matt 4:12-13).

John had been ministering well south of Galilee, in a region many scholars think is now on the West Bank. These were desert regions not far from Jericho and Jerusalem. It is this area in which Jesus likely spent forty days preparing for His ministry.

Regions near Jerusalem were troublesome at that time; the arrest of John the Baptist simply confirmed this. John had been arrested for telling Herod that he had no business living in adultery with his brother’s wife. Soon enough, he would lose his life because of it. With John the Baptist under arrest, the Lord Jesus concluded that it would not be prudent to fill that gap. Instead, He headed to the area north and west of the Sea of Galilee, the regions named for the Jewish tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali.

It amounts to a tale of two cities (or regions), Jerusalem and Galilee.

Jerusalem represents a hardened heart. It was a place of great contention, of unyielding positions and spiritual pride. It was the religious and political center as well as a kind of university town. There were good people to be found there, but overall the region had a hostile and poisonous mix of political and religious factions, of stubbornness, dispute, violence, and scorn. Regarding Jerusalem, Jesus lamented, Nevertheless, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day, for it is not possible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling (Luke 13:33-34). Yes, Jerusalem was stubborn, contentious, hard-hearted, and prideful.

Galilee, though not free from sin or without stubborn tendencies (e.g., John 6:66, Luke 4:29),  represents a softer heart, one open to teaching; less contentious, political, elitist, and stubborn. Surely some did contend with Jesus, but He felt the region was a better environment in which to plant the Gospel. Thus, Jesus went there to begin the work of gathering disciples. In the synoptic tradition, He went to Jerusalem to die, encountering increasing resistance the nearer He got. Galilee seemed a bit more open. Galileans were less cosmopolitan. They lived close to the earth and the rhythms of life. They were farmers, fishermen, shepherds, vine dressers, laborers, tradesmen, and shop owners. They had less time to debate the details of the Mosaic law and divide into contentious factions.

The people of Jerusalem often looked down on those from Galilee. Among other things, the Galileans spoke with what many in Jerusalem considered a “hick” accent. Peter was called out by a servant girl for having such an accent. This, along with the fact that Galileans were not well-educated in religious matters, led to a dismissive condescension by those living in the region of Jerusalem toward those from the north. The religious leaders in Jerusalem scoffed at Nicodemus’ suggestion that they actually investigate what Jesus was teaching before condemning Him. They replied, Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee (Jn 7:52).

So here is a tale of cities: one is prideful, arrogant, unbending in its views, and unteachable; its soil is hard. The other is more open and teachable; its soil is better able to nurture the seed of the Gospel.

You may argue that this is too simplistic; symbols often are. If you do, though, then please propose your own explanation as to why Jesus did not go to the very heart of the Jewish religion and its religious and political capital, Jerusalem, instead withdrawing to Galilee to begin His ministry and gather His disciples.

But for us, let’s take and apply this image to ourselves and allow it speak to our times.

In the first place we must ask, which city best reflects my heart? Is my heart the rich and softer soil of Galilee or is it Jerusalem, hardened, unreasonably certain, and elitist?

Too many people are like Jerusalem. They are not docile or teachable; they have hardened their hearts against any teaching of God that does not agree with their ideas. Too many do not want to be told what to do or think. They are dismissive of biblical and Church teaching without ever having really taken the time to examine the reasons that such things are taught or even considering that they might be true. They simply reject them because such teachings do not fit in with their views or are not convenient to their preferred behavior. They likely have not likely read the catechism or consulted a priest, catechist, or apologist; they just reject the teaching because someone or something in the world scoffs at or disagrees with it. This behavior is “Jerusalem,” figuratively speaking. Such hearts are not fertile soil for the gospel; and if Jesus goes there, it more likely means death to Him and His word, than converted minds or hearts.

Fewer today are like Galilee, with its fertile, receptive soil; open to being taught and willing to accept the need for conversion.

So, the first question is, which city are you? If we are honest, we will likely see a little of both in us. In some ways we are easily taught, but in others we are stubbornly resistant. But overall, are you in a humble conversation with the Lord? Do you seek to better understand the teachings that challenge you and your views?

This tale of two cities also speaks to our times, which increasingly resemble the Jerusalem mentality: proud, hardened, factious, and highly political. Too often we collectively think that we have “come of age”, scoffing at previous eras as unenlightened, less intelligent, sexually immature, and repressed. We confuse technology with wisdom and conclude that because we can split the atom, have been to the moon, and carry incredibly advanced gadgets, that we can simply dismiss the collected wisdom of the ages. Ancient biblical and Church teaching, which has stood the test of time, is dismissed as irrelevant, even scoffed at as merely the teachings of “dead white men.”

The various “academies” of ancient Jewish law (the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees) scoffed at whatever was not theirs and scornfully rejected the Messiah from Galilee. Many today also reject the Lord from Galilee. He’s not one of them. He doesn’t belong to the right party or hold the right views. Therefore, He is dismissed, and if He continues to pester, He must be marginalized, discredited, and destroyed.

We are clearly living in times in which political lines have become very hardened. Many opponents barely speak to one another, instead seeking legally and even physically destructive ways to silence them.

Yes, welcome to Jerusalem. Ponder what an ancient and perhaps obscure text has to teach us about our hearts, our culture, and our nation. The Lord withdrew from Jerusalem as a prudential judgment that there were more fertile fields elsewhere. And when He rose, He told His brothers to meet Him in Galilee (e.g., Mat 28:10).

Where do you chose to live? What is the condition of your heart? What will your stance be?

3 Replies to “A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. Excellent!

    And then there is the strategic move to Capernaum. 1.) Nazareth wasn’t too receptive (as we see when he returns for a visit. 2.) leave mom in a safer place with extended family while he has to travel all over. Therefore, 3.)Capernaum with core disciples, but with easy, quick access by boat to 2 other political jurisdictions, should things get out of hand–about the only way to travel where he could not be easily followed or tracked down all the time.

  2. This speaks to my heart! I am too contentious and overconfident in my opinions, I think, and I “like a good fight” over issues too much. I’m asking God to soften my heart and make me more open and docile to His Spirit, gentler and more loving to His people. Thank you Msgr. Pope!

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