Hero photograph
Jordan river 

Expand the Mind: Jesus and the Landscape — Mark 1:12-15

Kathleen Rushton —

Kathleen Rushton shows how landscape plays an important role in Jesus' understanding of his part in God's mission.

It is one of those warm post-Christmas Canterbury days. Usually I am not in the sale-ridden city because I am in the wilderness tramping but not this year — foot problems! The voice of the Earth is obscured in the city. I am aware of the contrast: the grandeur of mountain, valley and star-lit nights, the smallness of the human person in the immensity of the Cosmos. The aloneness and the away-ness. I become aware of the voice of the Earth in the gospel text.

Jesus is earthed. He is in the wilderness. Mark tells of this in two sentences, so it is best to set aside Matthew's and Luke’s details and look closely at Mark 1:12-13. Jesus comes from Nazareth in Galilee (Mk 1:9) and reappears again into Galilee (Mk 1:14). In between much happens in time, movement and place: River Jordan baptism, wilderness testing and an unspecified time until the arrest of John the Baptist. Most likely, Jesus was somewhere in the Judean desert in the region of Perea. According to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, the Jordan meanders through much desert on its way from the Lake of Galilee to the Dead Sea. Josephus tells of John’s imprisonment in Machaerus, a fortress about 24 kilometres east of the Dead Sea.

Jesus’ inherited tradition

Recent interest in the world of Jesus has focused on economic and social factors rather than considering human connectivity with the eco- and bio-spheres which would have been his inherited tradition. Old Testament ecological images centre on the nature of the land, its diverse landscapes, varied flora and fauna. Those strands saw the natural world as God’s creation and had implications for human interaction. What is Jesus’ response to his change of environment and the ecology of these sub-regions and how do people adapt to these?

In the Judean desert, human life was sustainable for nomads and for settlements. Two Hebrew terms, one for the desert in a strict sense and one for a wilderness where there is little or no human habitation, are translated in the Greek Bible by one word (eremos). Either landscape invokes Israel’s story. God was close in the wilderness. There Israel had put God to the test. The wilderness was a place which enabled deeper encounter with the self, and discovery of new purpose when one was freed from what filled life lived in "the real world." Jewish dissidents went there as part of their protest at the religious establishment. There Jesus is portrayed as at prayer.

The contrast between the wilderness and Galilee landscapes may be why Jesus took on a different ministry from the Baptist. The Nazareth range and the valleys of the Shephelah are of a type of rock which produces soil-cover and has springs. Unlike other craggy ranges in lower Galilee, the Nazareth ridge had villages near the summit because the fertile land was cultivated. Jesus’ shift in the natural environment recalls the contrast expressed in the book of Deuteronomy. Perhaps in an Exodus-like experience, he moved from an arid landscape to one "with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in hills and valleys, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees". (Deut 8:6–10). His inherited belief in the gift of the land is the backdrop to his role in God’s call. In his experience of contrast, suggests Irish scripture scholar Sean Frayne, the potential blessedness of life in the land so moved Jesus to see the present as a graced moment which influenced the direction of his ministry.

Three dimensions of place

In understanding Jesus’ attitude, and indeed our own in our particular environment, it is important not to be romantic about land and place. Place is not a static space. It is fluid, negotiated constantly and redrawn as different groups struggle for control of structures that define a particular space which is unfixed, contested and multiple. Norwegian theologian Halvor Moxnes, highlights the importance of three dimensions of place for the mission of Jesus and the changing face of Galilee: 

the experience of place which means how it is managed and controlled; 
the legitimation of place, that is, the ideological underpinning of the dominant controlling view; 
and imagination of place or the way in which an alternative vision of place can be developed and strategies to implement the new vision.

What was the experience of place during Roman rule? Recent excavations suggest Nazareth was a farming settlement with watch-towers, terraces, grape presses and field irrigation. This would be typical of nearby villages where small-scale peasant landowners worked the land intensively producing wheat, maize, olives, figs and grapes. Life was precarious depending on the weather and factors such as demands from passing armies and absent rulers. In the legitimation of place native elites, such as the ruler Herod Antipas, and Rome required taxes to be paid. The rebuilding of nearby prosperous Sepphoris, where possibly the carpenters Joseph and Jesus worked, exerted pressure on peasant life. A sophisticated water system comprising aqueducts and a huge underground reservoir have been uncovered. This example of human manipulation of the environment by elites was undertaken presumably without consideration of the impact on the water supply of nearby villages.

The third dimension of imagined place raises biblical ideals. As lived in the land in the present, the original vision was distorted. Jesus raised awareness of an alternative. He had heard: "A voice of one crying out in the wilderness" (Mk 1:3) and carried wilderness values into his ministry. His own lifestyle and action were a challenge. Jesus had heard, too, John’s call to "a baptism of repentance" (Mk 1:4). The Greek word metanoia, (repentance, conversion) is composed of: meta (expand, go beyond) and noia (mind) meaning "go beyond" or "expand the mind." Jesus was baptised (Mk 1:9). Later he said: "Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation" (Mk 16:15). His parables of everyday life about sowers and seeds (Mk 4:1–20), landlords, tenants and big estates (Mk 12:1–12) show an imagination grounded deeply in the natural world and the human struggle with it.

Lent offers a space to go to a wilderness place to enable deeper encounter with self and discovery of new purpose, to "expand the mind" by exploring the natural environment and through the imagination of place to be part of developing an alternative vision of human interaction. There are creative examples as explained by Dame Anne Salmond in her Rutherford Lecture 28 December 2014 (www.radionz.co.nz). She regards the deed of settlement signed on 5 August 2014 between the Whanganui River iwi and the Government as a revolutionary document. This agreement recognises Te Awa Tupua as a legal person with its own rights, and places it in a new relationship to humankind. A history of conflict over river access and use is overturned. The River is seen as a living whole running from the mountains to the sea. Its inextricable links to its people are expressed in the saying Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au (I am the River, the River is me). Two people are chosen by the Crown and the iwi as Te Pou Tupua, the human face of the river, acting in its interests and on its behalf.

Published in Tui Motu InterIslands February 2014.