This May,  along with eleven other pilgrims from Virginia, I traveled to the Holy Land. This pilgrimage was my sixth time in the Land of the Bible. During a conversation one of my companions asked why I keep coming back. As I reflected on this question, I thought I would share why I go to the Holy Land and why I will continue to go back.

The land of the Bible paints scripture in color. The American Church has, in many ways, turned scripture into a black and white document. While I don’t think this is an intentional act, the farther we get away from the orginal time and context of scripture the more easily we can Americanize the text to meet our own theological ends.

Traveling to the Holy Land helps pilgrims paint scripture in color once again, allowing us see how the culture and the topography of scripture influences the way we understand the sacred text. For example, the ruins at Capernaum or Bethsaida show the way homes were set up. Most homes in this time were multi-generational compounds housing dozens of family members. So, when Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “I’m going to your house today,” Jesus was ministering to much more than just one person. Jesus was going to change the lives of the generations of people living in the tax collector’s compound. This is just one small example of how understanding the culture adds a rich layer to the text.

Jesus lived in a highly political world. Our Christian Arab guide said, “People in the Middle East eat, drink, breathe and talk politics.” In Jesus’ day it wasn’t much different. Israel was under Roman Rule. The Maccabean revolt was decades old and Rome had a firm hold on the area. Herod the Great, then his son Herod Antipas, were building the magnificent structures at Caesura Maritima, Masada, Tiberius (on the Sea of Galilee) and in Jerusalem itself that were monuments clearly showing who was in charge. Jesus lived in a very political world. To ignore the political realities of the time is to ignore a vital piece of Jesus’ message.

If you have been to the Sea of Galilee, you know that it is a lake, not a sea. When Jesus began his ministry, he spent most of his time around the lake of Galilee. Every time Jesus spoke to the crowds he did so in the shadow of the newly constructed Roman city of Tiberius. This fact alone brings different shades to familiar texts.  When Jesus said “blessed are the Peacemakers” it was clear Jesus was pointing across the sea to Tiberius, showing his followers who the peacemakers were not. When you travel to the Holy Land it is easy to see that while Herod (and his sons) where building magnificent human kingdoms, Jesus was building a spiritual Kingdom and that these two kingdoms would always be at odds.

Our picture of Jesus is way off. Walk into almost any church and you will see pictures of a middle aged, white, bearded, perfect-skinned Jesus. Walking in the land of the Bible shows us this picture is skewed. Jesus was an Arab. Jesus had dark skin, dark hair and a dark beard. Jesus was also a carpenter, so Jesus probably had rugged skin and calloused fingertips.

It is important for us to be reminded that Jesus lived in a very different culture, with different assumptions and different cultural norms. The Jesus many have come to know is a European Jesus with whom we are all too comfortable. Perhaps changing our internal picture of Jesus will challenge us to think about our faith in new ways.

Pilgrimage is important. I believe this so strongly that, for as long as CBFVA will bless it, I plan to keep taking groups to the Land of the Bible. I want to encourage you to find a trip, or tag along with us the next time we go. While this trip is an investment, I firmly believe it is a good investment for clergy and laity alike.