The radical truth of Christianity, which sets it off from all other world-faiths, is that God became a human being and not just any human being, but Jesus of Nazareth. He was a Jew. But he wasn’t just any Jew, he was a Galilean Jew.
Sunday after Easter
The Gospel of John actually ends with the twentieth chapter without mention of Galilee. The twenty first chapter is an add on that corrects his story by describing a later meeting of Jesus with his disciples at the sea of Tiberias, the Roman name for Galilee that, according to John, occurred sometime later. There is no mention of Galilee in Mark or Luke. Luke concludes his Gospel with Jesus and company going no farther than the little village of Bethany in the Jerusalem’s suburbs and reports Jesus’ ascension. And then in the Book of Acts, his sequel to his Gospel, we read this of Jesus: “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem…”
Matthew, the contrarian, reports three times where certain disciples of Jesus were instructed to meet the Lord in Galilee after His resurrection. The first was during the Passover meal that Jesus ate the night of his betrayal. He informed his disciples, saying, “After I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matthew 26:32). Three days later, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection when Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the empty tomb of Jesus, Matthew reports that the effusive angel told them to notify the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection, and to tell them exactly the same thing they were told three days earlier: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him” (28:7). Then, only three verses later, as the women were on their way to inform the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and the message given to them by the angel, Matthew says that Jesus appeared to them and said: “Rejoice!… Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (28:9-10). Then Matthew tells us that the disciples went to Galilee. Why Galilee? Why not Jerusalem? Why not Judea? What is so significant about Galilee, at least to Matthew? This is another reason that the Gospel’s can’t be harmonized. I have to wonder why Luke goes out of his way to say that the disciples were to stay in Jerusalem while Matthew is clear about Jesus’ instructions for them to go to Galilee.
The radical truth of Christianity, which sets it off from all other world-faiths, is that God became a human being and not just any human being, but Jesus of Nazareth. He was a Jew. But he wasn’t just any Jew, he was a Galilean Jew. True, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but his stay in Bethlehem was only a matter of weeks, if that. He was never known as Jesus of Bethlehem, but Jesus of Nazareth. Nazareth, in Galilee, that was his real home. Matter of fact he was conceived in Nazareth. He made Galilee the center of his life and work. Why Galilee?
Unlike Jerusalem and Judean Jews, for Galilean Jews their home land was a multicultural, multiracial region. Galileans were, in every sense of the word, a racially and culturally mixed people. Galilee was surrounded and inhabited by Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and others. This racial and cultural mix affected their language; Galileans were often ridiculed for not speaking correct Aramaic and Hebrew. Their speech betrayed them. Remember how Peter was able to deny Jesus but he couldn’t deny being a Galilean: “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean, your accent betrays you” (Mark 14:70; Matthew 26:73). The terms “peasants,” “the common people,” the ‘am ha-arez —”the people of the land” —were all terms applied to Galileans, all of which carried the stigma of a religiously uneducated people. The Talmud advises orthodox Judean Jews “No man may marry the daughter of the ‘am ha-arez, for they are like unclean animals, and their wives like reptiles, and it is concerning their daughters that Scripture says: ‘Cursed be he who lies with any kind of beast’ (Deut. 27:21).”
On the political side, Galilee was the headquarters for the majority of the revolutionary movements attempting to overthrow Roman oppression. It was the home of Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealot Movement. Tradition has it that about the time when Jesus was just a small boy in Nazareth, possibly 8-10 years of age, Judas the Galilean captured the weapons arsenal of Herod the Great and led a revolt against the Romans. But Rome crushed the rebels, leveled the town, sold the women and children into slavery and crucified some two thousand Jews. All of this took place merely four miles from Nazareth. Can you imagine the impact that this must have made on Jesus’ young impressionable mind? In Luke 13:1-3 Jesus relates the incident of Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices. Notice the tone of compassion towards the Galileans in His words: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no.” It could very well have been that some of these Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered were Jesus’ own playmates as a boy in Nazareth. The point is that rebellion was so common in Galilee that the term “Galilean” took on the dark political connotation of a possible association with Judas the Galilean.” Remember the sign placed over Jesus’ head when he was crucified? It read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” the connection to Galilean rebellious movements was very strong. Here is another pretender to the throne; this is what Rome does to such!
Pedigree was also involved. There was this notion that only Israelites of pure ancestry made up the pure Israel. After the exile, genealogies became important in order to separate pure families from those racially mixed. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles, written after the exile, are all filled with genealogical lists. In the post-exilic period, these lists were important in order to determine who was a pure Israelite. A person could not be a priest unless they could prove their ancestral purity to at least five generations. No person could hold a public office who was not of pure ancestry nor would they associate in court or in public office with persons whose ancestry was of doubt. Proof of pure ancestry was important for a woman to marry into a priestly family. Every Israelite knew his immediate ancestors and could point to which of the twelve tribes he belonged. If the Messiah were to come from any place it would be from Judea, from Bethlehem, from Jerusalem— but not Galilee! When Nicodemus stood up in the Council and defended Jesus, even he was labeled as a Galilean: “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee!” (John 7:40-52).
Galilee was the land of the rejected, the despised, the outcasts and foreigners. It was here where people, wanting to escape from the puritans of Judea could flee into anonymity and obscurity. This is where Jesus found Mary Magdalene and healed her of demon possession. Their racial and cultural mix and their constant contact with gentiles and heathens, resulted in Galileans being despised and rejected by the “pure” Jews of Jerusalem who saw themselves as the sole heirs of cultural and religious purity. As far as the Jews were concerned, nothing good could ever come out of Galilee, except a bunch of, rabble-rousers, half-breeds, ruthless, unrighteous people who despise the teachings of God. Thus Galileans were regarded as fools, heretics and rebels. No wonder Nathaniel was shocked to hear that the Messiah was coming from Galilee. It was the last place from which one would expect the Messiah to come. Remember his reply to Phillip?: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-46).
There’s a huge change in how Jesus addresses his followers in this text. We of the Religious Society of Friends hang our hats on the passage in John 14 where Jesus says “I no longer call you servants (or slaves) but friends” and the reason given is that he had told his followers everything, making them equals in that they would love one another. But the shift is even greater in this passage in Matthew. He tells the women to go tell “my brothers” – this is ghetto talk, barrio talk… this isn’t ancestry.com, it’s brotherhood from sharing the same cultural realities.
Galileans, by their racial and cultural mixture, were not only deprived of earthly social positions, they were predestined to hell! Yet, when one looks at the attitude of John the Baptist and Jesus, they both disdained the preoccupation with ancestral and racial purity. When the Pharisees insisted they were the children of Abraham and had Abraham as their father, John tells them that it is not ancestral purity that matters in the Kingdom of God, but repentance (Matthew 3:9). And Jesus declares to the religious leaders, that it is belief in the Son of God, and not in being descents of Abraham, that would save them (John 8:36).
The human scandal of God’s way does not begin with the cross, but with the historical-cultural incarnation of Jesus, in Galilee. That God chose to become a Galilean underscores the great paradox of the incarnation in which God becomes the despised and lowly of the world and identifies with them and becomes one with them.
In Mark 1:9, 14-15, we read that Galilee is not only the place from which Jesus comes to be baptized, but the place into which he returns to begin his ministry. One of the challenges faced by persons of minority groups, or people that have experienced a great deal of powerlessness in society, is that once they leave the barrio or the ghetto, no one wants to go back. We’ve seen this with international students from third world countries sent abroad to get training to enrich their homeland only to choose not to return. The push for upward mobility is too strong, and people no longer want to identify with their roots, their people. And here is the reason for the importance for Jesus’ brothers to meet him in Galilee–somebody has to go back and tell them that there is hope. Jesus comes from that ghetto, he is the quintessential “homeboy”! Out of Galilee, the place of the nobodies, comes the Somebody of God, Jesus Christ, who goes back into Galilee to form a community of hope, a community consisting of the children of God.
After Matthew tells us that the keepers of the tomb reported their experience with the angel to the religious authorities and are given hush money he concludes his Gospel with this: Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Here is the great commission. And the reality of to whom Jesus’ brothers were first called to go can’t be missed. That’s were Jesus is and where we will meet Jesus, in Galilee among the Galileans.