For several reasons, I’ve never much hankered to go the “Holy Land,” especially on a tour that promises, “Follow Jesus’ Footsteps.” After all, no one place on God’s earth is holier than another; the whole world belongs to God. Second, I’m third generation Dutch, boasting a strong genetic heritage as a selective tightwad. A trip to Israel costs a whack of money I’d rather spend on bikes, canoes or give to church and charities. Third, I dislike hot weather.
The Holy Land is miserably hot much of the year – though 2016’s southwestern Ontario summer has given the Middle East a run for its money.
Then I read Jesus: A Pilgrimage and am reconsidering. Blame Father James Martin, Editor-at-Large of the Jesuit magazine America.
Several years ago Martin and a priest colleague went to the Holy Land. He wrote this remarkable book that pretty convincingly shows that it is possible to follow Jesus’ footsteps, but without the tawdry tourism hype of many tours. Throughout, Martin offers an intelligent travelogue cum self-examining devotional, beefed up with imaginative, faithful reflections on the Gospels, all with a purpose to become “more like Jesus.”
Comprising 25 chapters titled with place names or Gospel themes, Jesus is a fine book for almost a month’s devotions. In a creative reversal of any devotional I’ve read, Martin begins each chapter with compelling discourses on episodes in Jesus’ ministry, ending with the full biblical narrative.
Clearly, Martin cherishes the Bible, mining it for its revelatory messages, while noting differences in Gospel accounts. For example, thoroughly pondering Jesus’ baptism, Martin observes that in Mark the baptism appears to be private experience, unlike the other accounts. Yet he is not hamstrung by differences, as are literalist readers who tie themselves in fear-ridden knots trying to harmonize details.
Jesus is not a book of apologetics for unbelievers. Yet Martin’s thoughtful reflections on Jesus’ work and itinerant ministry often sent chills up and down this sometime doubting preacher’s spine. Instead, Martin aims his literate meditations at seekers or disciples. He believes miracles happen and that Jesus did them in order to draw people closer to him.
For example, after a miraculous catch of fish, otherwise bombastic Peter drops to his knees, confessing his own unworthiness, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man” (159). But Peter soon finds out what we all need to learn: Jesus just won’t go away, because, “We are all sinners, but sinners loved by God.”
That loving observation, though, by no means compromises Martin’s keen focus on Jesus’ radical challenges. Writing on the Beatitudes, Martin reminds readers of the immediacy of the promises to the people Jesus names. “Jesus’s upside-down vision represented a complete transformation of society as his listeners knew it.” Some in the crowd – and today – see those Jesus blessed as threats. Times haven’t changed. Can we rich folks find or institute blessing for those Jesus blesses? Wouldn’t that make us “more like Jesus”?
“Challenging” also characterizes Martin’s thoughtful, thorough exegesis of Jesus’ Parables. Not content to read the Parable of the Talents allegorically, Martin offers a plausible, radical social justice reading. Since “most parables cannot be exhausted by a single interpretation,” he offers Barbara Reid’s interpretation that the third servant was honourable, because he was protesting a system that exploited the poor and picked only a few select who got rich.
Thus, the master certainly is not God, as most interpreters assume, but rather an unjust earthly boss of whom Jesus surely would not approve. Preacher colleagues: Would that preach in your congregation? I dare you!
Yet interestingly in his comments on the healing of the paralyzed man let down through a roof, Martin does suggest a simple allegorical interpretation. Noting that the man’s friends couldn’t get to Jesus “because of the crowd,” Martin concludes “the phrase may serve to remind us that ‘the crowd’ can prevent us from getting close to God in a variety of ways.”
Let this whet your reading appetites. Read this intelligent, evocative devotional travelogue at home. Or take it as a necessary companion on a trip to the Holy Land. Maybe someone needs a chaplain on such a trip? You pay, I’ll go.