The Sea of Galilee is the setting for the gospel reading this weekend from Matthew. It is one of the most familiar bodies of water mentioned in all the gospels. During the three years of his public ministry, Jesus spent most of his time traveling and teaching around the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. As a five-time pilgrim to the Holy Land, I like to believe the shores around the Sea of Galilee were where Jesus was most content, most at home, and most at peace.
The Sea of Galilee is actually a vast body of freshwater located in the Jordan Valley about 60 miles north of Jerusalem. It is approximately 13 miles long and eight miles wide at its broadest point. Its shape resembles a harp. The Jordan River flows into the Sea from the north, bringing melted snow from Mt. Hermon and Mt. Lebanon. The River Jordan continues out of the south end until it reaches the Dead Sea. In scripture it is also called Lake Tiberias, Lake Gennesaret and the Sea of Chinnereth.
Jesus chose Capernaum, located on the northwestern shore, as his home base. In his day, this would have been a thriving commercial area, with an important fishing industry. It was from here that Jesus called several of his apostles – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – from their boats to become “fishers of men,” as well as Matthew, the tax collector.
Because of the mountains on either side of the Sea of Galilee, sudden and severe storms regularly occur. Jesus showed his apostles that he could control those storms and work miracles while at sea. They asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and waves obey him!” He showed them he could even walk on water!
The Sea of Galilee is the site of many gospel stories. Jesus healed numerous people around the Sea of Galilee. With its tropical climate and medicinal springs, Tiberias was a popular health resort destination for sick people. He taught crowds by the shore, preached from boats, and gave the Sermon on the Mount of the Beatitudes. He cast out demons, healed a man with an unclean spirit, raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead, and fed the 5,000.
The Sea was the setting for many parables, as Jesus taught by drawing on the natural world and work life familiar to his listeners – seeds, wheat, weeds, fish, nets, sheep, and vineyards. Jesus even chose to return to the shores of the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection, prior to his Ascension. He cooked breakfast for his seven of his apostles and gave Peter the chance to reconcile his denial of him.
Walking in the footsteps of Jesus along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, it is easy to imagine Jesus there in the calm beauty of the lake. The landscape would have been just what Jesus saw during his lifetime – brown hills, green valleys, blue skies, and the color of the water in the Sea. This pilgrim has so often prayerfully walked the shores, sailed the Sea, and sat quietly, feeling the presence of Jesus in a way that cannot be explained, only acknowledged in prayers of thanksgiving to God for all of his wonders and for the opportunity to travel such a sacred journey of life.
MJ Antone, St. Paul’s Director of Parish Ministries and Adult Faith Formation