There’s a moment in The West Wing in which two senior White House staff are confronted with the idea that our maps are wrong; the northern hemisphere is made to look larger, and therefore more important, and Britain is put at the centre of the world. The scene is played for laughs, but I’ve been unable to look at maps in the same way since; we treat them as dispassionate records of where places are, but beware – they’re also rife with assumptions and biases, and if you think I’m exaggerating, consider that back in the day maps were centred on Jerusalem – the world looks very different.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that sometimes Jesus goes toe-to-toe with geography.
For instance, take the story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a Sunday School classic, and everyone knows it was Lake Galilee that he walked upon. But when John recounts the story, he emphasises something significant – the lake was also known as ‘Tiberias’, as was a nearby city. Now, at the time Jesus took his stroll across the water, this was a recent development; the city of Tiberias was found by Herod Antipas in AD20, as a way of sucking up to the Emperor, the lake being renamed as the city grew in prestige. This wasn’t just a nice bit of urban planning; it was a political statement that exposed some of the tensions of the time – many more militant or religious Jews refused to settle in Tiberias, although it’s loyalty to Rome meant it became the default centre of Jewish culture after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70.
Most of the miracles have a theological point to make; walking on water emphasises Jesus’s divinity, his lordship over creation and, as the sea was viewed as the source of chaos and cosmic forces in opposition to God, the triumph of God’s Kingdom. So when John stresses that this took place in an area where the name of the Roman emperor had come to dominate the landscape, at a time when loyalty was a matter of life and death, we’re invited to recognise who’s really in charge.
A similar thing happens in Caesarea Philippi; Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be; Peter immediately announces that he’s the Messiah. It would be a great proclamation of faith in any setting, but in Caesarea, surrounded by shrines to other gods, it almost becomes dangerous. The very town is named after an emperor and a king; heck, originally it was named after a god. There’s a reason Jesus asked such a controversial question in this place.
Humans often impose themselves on our landscape; we build cities that act as architectural testament to our power and prestige, we ‘discover’ new lands and give them new names, no matter what those who already live there think about it. We like to believe that God is sovereign, but we also believe that it’s our politician, our pastor, our bombs and drones that will really sort things out. Sometimes that even goes so far as to be a form of idolatry – it’s not spoken out loud, but we can see a glimpse of it every time we look at an atlas.
Jesus, God incarnate, lived and worked in places like this, which should challenge us – what comes first, God or Empire? Or, put another way, whose kingdom has the most territory on our theological map?
(This post was inspired by a podcasted sermon I heard recently – unfortunately I can’t remember who it was by! If it rings any bells, please let me know so that I can add a link.)