“Jesus went down to Capernaum, a town of Galilee. He used to teach them every Sabbath. They were astonished at his teaching, because his message was powerful and authoritative.
There was a man in the synagogue who had the spirit of an unclean demon. ‘Hey, you!’ he yelled out at the top of his voice. ‘What’s going on with you and me, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—you’re God’s Holy One!’
‘Shut up!’ Jesus rebuked him. “Come out of him!’
The demon threw the man down right there in front of them, and came out without harming him. Fear came over them all. ‘What’s all this?’ they started to say to one another. ‘He’s got power! He’s got authority! He tells the unclean spirits what to do, and they come out!’ Word about him went out to the whole surrounding region.
He left the synagogue and went into Simon’s house. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a high fever, and they asked him about her. He stood in front of her, rebuked the fever, and it left her. And straight away she got up and waited on them.
When the sun went down, everyone who had sick people—all kinds of sicknesses—brought them to him. He laid his hands on each one in turn, and healed them. Demons came out of many people, shouting out ‘You are the son of God!’ He sternly forbade them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah.
When day dawned he left the town and went off to a deserted place. The crowds hunted for him, and when they caught up with him they begged him not to leave them.
‘I must tell the good news of God’s kingdom to the other towns,’ he said. ‘That’s what I was sent for.’ And he was announcing the message to the synagogues of Judaea.” (A translation provided by Tom Wright in his commentary, Luke for Everyone)
On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 one of my favorite places was Capernaum. Scholars trace Jesus’ presence in this town with a great deal of authenticity. In Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus entering Capernaum where He brings healing to many of the residents beginning in chapter eight. He then travels by boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, calming a storm along the way and healing a crazed demoniac before being kicked out of that area. He crosses back and Matthew 9:1 states, “Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town.”
Capernaum is Jesus’ “own town.” He was raised in Nazareth, which is 20 miles away and not on the Sea of Galilee. But His ministry headquarters become this town that sits on the north-western shore of the sea, which stretches 13 miles from north to south. It would take hours to walk between these two Galilean towns so Jesus didn’t go back home much after He began His ministry. Of course, the fact that the folks with whom He grew up tried to throw Him off a cliff after he led worship in their synagogue sent a pretty strong message that they weren’t ready to accept Him as anything but Joseph’s boy. So Capernaum and the lakeshore became home to Him.
I loved this part of our trip because I felt like I was truly walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Our story takes place in several locations of Capernaum. Verse 31 places Him at the local synagogue where He performed an exorcism on a demon-possessed man. In Capernaum the synagogue stands above the excavated homes. The present structure dates back to the fourth or fifth century. But it is built upon the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus interacted with this troubled man. I had a chance to walk through it and sit on the stone bench that lines one of the walls, soaking in the meaning of the place. Jesus’ power was unleashed here and it brought no small amount of attention from the community members.
From there Jesus heads to Peter’s home, where his mother-in-law is languishing. The place has been a site of Christian pilgrimage for nearly 2000 years. Excavated signs and markings proclaim that this part of the development is where Peter lived with his family. Does it surprise you to know that Peter, who was eventually martyred for his faith, had a wife and undoubtedly children? Jesus offers the hospitality of healing through spoken words. It says that He rebuked the fever and it came out of her. We laugh in our Bible Study classes because no sooner is the poor woman healed from her fever and she’s whipping up a casserole for this group of men who have shown up at her small home! But I think we need to recognize that she did this voluntarily. You know how good it feels to reclaim your normal routine after a sickness or other disruption to your schedule? This woman was grateful to Jesus for His healing and joyfully reciprocated with her own hospitality—food to nourish the body.
They lived in small spaces. There is now a church on stilts that is built over the excavated section that is believed to hold Peter’s house. Inside the church there are railings around a center floor that is clear plastic and looks down on this sacred space. Over the years Peter’s house was shaped into an octagonal church which attracted pilgrims for centuries. It is protected now so we can get a view of it from above through a rather milky plastic floor. Or we can get a side view underneath from a fenced-off area that skirts the excavation. There is a cross marking the place believed to be the entry to the compound where the folks crowded in line with their own ailing loved ones who needed to be cured.
You can see that the spaces are small where people lived. Folks lived 3-4 generations in one place, extended family members residing nearby. They shared a common courtyard where food preparation happened and laundered clothing hung out to dry. Animals would have been held in the courtyard and the private areas were used primarily for sleeping. I was struck with how closely the community co-existed, the ancient housing development resembling a confusing labyrinth. The men went out to fish each morning, putting their lives on the line as storms swept over the water with little warning. The women supported each other in the daily tasks and probably helped with tilling the land to provide food for their families. They were interdependent and had to work out their differences given the proximity of their daily routines. Everyone’s gifts were needed and they were of service to each other in order to survive.
What would have been memorable about growing up there is life around the lake. Through one of the synagogue windows you capture a view of the lake. Jesus taught crowds along the lakeshore, pushing out on a boat and using the natural acoustics of the water to be heard. I had the great opportunity to do a Bible study in the part of the beach that is believed to be where Jesus surprised the disciples with a post-resurrection fish-fry! My sister and I collected some water there and used a small portion of that in our baptisms two weeks ago. Jesus summoned two pairs of brothers who were fishing in that area to follow Him—and they did! Matthew, the tax-collector, worked in the area of Capernaum and he also left his vocation to follow Jesus. Just as we treasure the memories of summers spent on a lake, in a boat, at a cottage, or hunting in the fall with our dad, Jesus selected disciples who felt most at ease in the country. In John’s gospel the disciples leave Jerusalem after the crucifixion and head to the place where they felt like they belonged—to the shores of the Sea of Galilee where they had family, vocation and safety. Their lakeside lifestyle was both demanding and satisfying and this is where Jesus chose to grow His ministry.
As we were leaving Galilee in our spacious air-conditioned bus, I felt sad. I realized that we were leaving the land that was home to Jesus. We left the lakeshore with its sprinkling of small towns in beautiful settings: think Sparta, Kent City, and Ravenna, each with its own identity yet clustered near enough to depend on each other. Approximately 125 miles later (two and one half hours for us to drive but imagine how long it took them to walk!) we found ourselves in a crowded city that would be like a Kent City farmer showing up on One Magnificent Mile in Chicago. For these country bumpkins from Galilee I suspect a trip to Jerusalem was both exciting and overwhelming. People eke out a living in the walls of the city. Merchants cry out for you to buy their wares. Beggars plead for your mercy. Armed soldiers casually wield their guns, reminding you that order will be kept no matter the cost. There’s a visible mix of people who knew to segregate. In Jesus’ day they had several lines of demarcation into different parts of the temple. There were and still are different vocational roles in each of the religions represented in that area. Amidst the hustle and bustle of an exciting city, social boundaries were closely observed! After a few days in the big city I suspect Galileans began to yearn for the natural beauty of home!
Remember how good it felt to get home after your first semester at college? The food never tasted better. Access to free laundry services is no longer taken for granted. Back in your own room, you collapse into your own bed surrounded by mementos of your past. Saying grace around the table with loved ones and getting caught up with each other’s news nourishes body and soul! I think it’s impossible to have had a favorite meal in an unfriendly environment. Companionship is a central element of good hospitality.
Hospitality starts small. We don’t need to serve a Thanksgiving meal with countless side dishes and a buffet table full of dessert options to be gracious hosts. On a cold night at the end of a snow day, a bowl of soup and piece of bread can taste best of all! Sharing wine and cheese with dear friends in the intimacy of a home can be a highlight for us. Good hospitality happens in a small setting like a bar named Cheers, where everybody knows your name! It starts, perhaps, with small zip-lock baggies of chopped up veggies from the little hands of our children today. What wonderful soup we enjoyed together for our coffee hour thanks to their contributions! In the recent power outage that affected tens of thousands in our community, I heard stories of candlelit dinners shared with friends who came together to serve up a warm meal in a cold home. People’s caring comes in the form of flowers, cards, hugs and meals after the death of a loved one. Our family was gratefully on the receiving end of so much kindness in the recent death of Garrett’s dad. We are changed by a meal we share in our worship service each month: bread and juice in Jesus’ name! In Capernaum, 2000 years ago, Jesus offered compassionate hospitality to a woman with a rebuke against her fever. She reciprocated by providing a meal for a band of men who had dedicated their time and energy for holy purposes. Good hospitality starts small but grows like yeast to influence a whole community for good and for God.
Our story ends today with Jesus traveling away from Capernaum in spite of their desire to hold on to Him as a local celebrity. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus knew that He needed to move on to offer others the kind of spiritual nourishment He had given Peter’s mother-in-law. Like her and the son-in-law on whom Christ established His Church, we move on from the times of our great nourishment. The meal we share around this table brings us into Jesus’ presence. It links us to Christians across the world who set their sights on Him to determine their course for each day. We have good news to tell! We have good food to share. Hospitality starts small—it begins with Jesus and a gathering of believers, like us!