While taking classes in Israel I heard over and over again the term “the fifth gospel” from Christian professors. At first I was confused. Did someone canonize the Gospel of Thomas or some crazy thing? No. This was Eastern scholars’ way of saying, “In order to understand the first four gospels, one must come to understand the fifth gospel – the LAND itself, and the story it tells.”
A good example of that is here in our Matthew passage today. We have two stories of Jesus getting angry. First Jesus overturns tables at the Temple Mount. Then he leaves the city, crossing over to Bethany to spend the night, a small village to the east of Jerusalem, through Bethpage.
The next day he returns to the city. On the way, he encounters a fig tree, and curses it. He ends with, “If you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”
I had always thought the biblical phrase to “move a mountain” was a metaphor. Then I went to Israel and studied the “fifth gospel”. Have you ever heard of the Herodium? Probably not. It is a man-made structure built a little before the time of Christ. This mountain was made by the Romans as an outpost, military vantage point, and also a winter retreat for Herod. It was an underground fortress, nine levels in total. It was an engineering marvel. (Pictured above)
It was also a mountain, literally. Taking many years to make, it was made by the determination of Roman architects, engineers, and by the hands of many slaves, who carried buckets of dirt for years to make this pile of soil which eventually became a mountain.
While it is not mentioned by name in the Bible, there are Roman documents explaining its construction, and even recounting the many years it took to do this project, and the skepticism of the people as to whether it would ever be built. Many thought it was impossible. They lacked the faith to envision such marvels.
When you are walking from Bethany to Jerusalem, through Bethpage, the Herodium is visible to the south. I imagine that as Jesus was cursing the fig tree and explaining, “If you have faith and do not doubt, you can say to this mountain, be moved.” This was no reference to telekinetic powers. This was Jesus actually pointing at the Herodium saying, “If you had faith like the Romans, you could do this.” What an insult!
This was a low blow. Jesus had just gotten done upsetting the Sadducees with his Temple shenanigans. Now he was upsetting the Zealots and others by paying the Romans a compliment. He lifts them up and says, “Even the Romans do some things better that we do.” It is easy to see why a few chapters later he ends up on a cross.
I hope you all get to go to Israel one day. It was like buying a color TV for the first time, having seen it only in black and white since I was born. If you are going to Israel with me in January you will see this. If not, perhaps you will want to join my class in the Fall that will study Jesus and the Land. It will be like visiting Israel through digital media without actually visiting. (For more: http://www.fpcokc.org/trips )