Although it has become a message for every age, Jesus’ ministry happened in a specific place and time. As I have walked the streets of Jerusalem, sailed on the Sea of Galilee and traveled the winding roads down to the Jordan, I remember that Jesus walked the same dusty roads and climbed the same dry hills—the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that the Romans called Judaea and later renamed Palestine. Today we call it Palestine or Israel or sometimes even Israel/Palestine, revealing our own confusion and ambivalence about this land.
In the time of Jesus, the land which was the Roman province of Iudaea or Judaea was the scene of war and violence, bloodshed, torture and displacement. The Roman occupation meant onerous taxes for the Judean peasants; when they objected, their protests were put down violently, with all the protesters killed or crucified and entire towns burned to the ground. Finally the Roman Emperor Hadrian defeated the Judeans for the last time in the third rebellion in 135 CE. By renaming the land Syria Palaestina (and renaming Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina) he hoped to wipe out all trace of the Judeans. Rome brought foreigners to colonize the area.
When Jesus walked these roads, the land was under occupation—the Roman Emperor and his army, his governors and procurators controlled the land and the lives of everyone who lived on the land. The Judeans disputed Rome's control of their lives and their land. Today ownership of the land is once again disputed and the land which was to have become a Palestinian state is under armed occupation.
The gospel writers make us acutely aware of the role of the Roman Empire in the lives of even the most ordinary people in first century Palestine. In Luke’s account, the story of Jesus’ birth opens as Mary and Joseph make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the mandatory counting—required by the Empire for all of the occupied people. The Empire wants to determine the value of that which it possesses. Matthew’s account, too, is specific about Jesus’ birthplace: “in Bethlehem of Judea.” (Matt 2.1).
Jesus was born, not only in a specific place, but in a specific time, with a specific relationship to what was going on in the world. And so it is today. The land of Palestine/Israel is a specific geography and the story of the passion, of God coming to live among us, of God’s work in the world, is ongoing.
Where is God at work today among the people of Palestine and Judea?
The stories of the “living stones,” the people of this holy land, show us God’s work. Each time I visit the Holy Land, the people I meet beg me to tell their stories. They speak with confidence that if the world knew what was happening, their lives would change and the occupation would end. There is a growing movement among Jews within Israel that would end the occupation because of the way the system of checkpoints and walls and permits for Palestinians has damaged the humanity of the Jews themselves.