Jesus and the City

By Dr. Alvin Padilla, Ph.D.,
Dean of Hispanic Ministries
& Associate Professor of New Testament

It is generally accepted that the Hellenistic world was significantly urban. As Alexander the Great expanded his empire eastward, he envisioned the emergence of a civilization emblazoned with Greek culture. One of the critical components of this Hellenization was the founding of Greek cities, which would serve as emanating centers of Hellenistic cultural elements.

It seems that thousands of years before the advent of urban studies, Alexander understood the importance of the city as the axis of fashion, music, language, politics, lifestyles, commerce, trade, etc. Today, that fact is lost to many in the Church—particularly to women and men who are called to serve in leadership roles. While there are many reasons for this disregard, I am of the opinion that the major impetus for it is the modern polarization of the urban and rural worlds evident in many industrialized societies.

However, if we are to judge by the use of the term polis, the importance of the city was not lost on Jesus. Let us take a cursory glance at Jesus’ “urban mission,” which can be particularly discerned in the Gospel of Luke.

During the time of Jesus’ ministry, 1st century Judea had its share of cities. Describing southern Galilee, the Jewish historian Josephus writes, “the cities lie very thick and the very many villages that are here are everywhere so full of people by the richness of their soil that the very least of them contained about 15,000 inhabitants” (War of the Jews, 3.43). In southern Galilee, one could not live in the villages and escape the ramifications of urbanization.

Jesus clearly embraced the idea of the importance of the city for the proclamation of the advent of the Kingdom of God. His central message is that the promises of God have begun to be fulfilled in His own person. He has arrived on the scene as the divine King ready to reclaim, redirect and redeem His people. To the cities, Jesus sends his disciples with a message: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

In the Synoptic Gospels we find that Jesus’ geographical focal point, his destination, is the city of Jerusalem—the city that dominated the social, cultural, economic and religious landscape of the entire region. Of course, there will be those who are quick to point out that Jerusalem as the focal point is a consequence of its status as the cultic center in Judaism. And that is precisely my point. A cultic center of such importance can only be located in a city. The presence of the Temple in David’s royal city, which was the center of religious and political spheres of influence, could only lead to the rise to eminence of that city.

It is not possible in this brief essay to fully present Jesus’ urban mission. A quick journey through the Gospel of Luke must suffice for the present. The noun “city” (polis) is used 160 times in the NT. Half of this usage is found in Luke and the book of Acts. This interest in the polis can be discerned in the way that Luke employs that label to designate localities not so characterized in the other Gospels. Bethlehem is called a “village” by John (7:42), whereas Luke calls it a city (2:3-4, 11). According to Mark, Bethsaida is a village (8:23), while Luke considers it a city (9:10). This usage might suggests that Luke is dogmatically employing the term polis as a synonym for kome (village, town), and this appears to be the thinking of the NIV translators who on numerous occasions translate polis as “town.” However, Luke uses the term kome to refer to the hostile Samaritans (9:52), the home of Mary and Martha (10:38); the home of the colt ridden by Jesus upon entering Jerusalem (19:30) and the destination of the two dejected disciples who were traveling on the road to Emmaus (24:13, 28). Whereas Matthew and Mark in their rendering of the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1) rightly draw attention to the crowds who came to hear Jesus, only Luke notes that they came from various cities (8:4).

In Luke, the angel Gabriel is sent to the “city” of Nazareth and as soon as Mary hears the angelic message, she departs for the home of Elizabeth who lives “in a polis in the hill country of Judea” (1:3). The first synoptic healing narrative (Mark 1.21) takes place in Capernaum. Only Luke designates Capernaum as a “polis of Galilee” (again we should note that the NIV translates this as “town”). The widow’s son is raised from the dead in the city of Nain (Luke 7:11). The woman who anoints and kisses the feet of Jesus is from “that city” (7:37).

Crossing the Sea of Galilee, Jesus heals a demoniac living in the tombs and says that the man came from the city (8:27). And whereas Mark employs the proper name Decapolis to refer to the region (Mk 5:20), only Luke says that after his deliverance the man bore witness of Jesus throughout the whole city (8:39) After the tumultuous events on Calvary, some of Jesus’ followers take down the body of their Master for burial. Once again, only Luke designates Arimathea as a “city of the Jews.”

The central section of the gospel of Luke (9:51-19:27) focuses on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the city of the great king (9:41; 22:10; 23:19; 24:49). Jesus will fulfill his mission only when he arrives in that city and gives His life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity. This central section is a long processional towards the city as ultimate goal. Throughout this journey, Luke reminds his readers of the pilgrimage’s final goal—Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Lk 9:51, 53;13:22; 17:11; 19:11). The redemptive plan can only be accomplished in the city of the Great King. As the King enters His royal city, the city in which He will offer his life as a sacrifice for many, only Luke notes that Jesus pauses to weep for the city (19:41).

What are we to make of this urban emphasis in Luke’s gospel? First, it should not lead us to conclude that Luke places more importance on the city over against the countryside, or rural areas. The use of polis in the third gospel does not suggest that Luke did not care for the countless villages that dotted the known world. Rather, it suggests that as an urbanite Luke well understood the influence that the polis exercised over the surrounding rural regions. Focusing evangelistic attention in the polis results in evangelistic efforts in the surrounding regions as well.

The early Christian missionaries understood this concept quite well. Paul and other itinerant preachers gravitated to the cities of the Roman world as Acts, Luke’s second volume, bears witness. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian official provides a good example that is often neglected by those studying the urban-rural dichotomy, for at first sight it appears to support a rural focus to Philip’s evangelistic efforts. However, a contextual reading of the story reveals that Philip is busily engaged in ministry in the nearby city of Samaria (Acts 8:5) when he is pulled from that ministry for a momentary encounter with the Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26-39).2 After the conversion of the Ethiopian, Philip returns to his preaching in the cities until he reached Caesarea (Acts 8:40). For his part, the Ethiopian joyfully returned to his home, certainly a city, for we cannot imagine Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, ruling from the countryside.

Second, this Lucan emphasis should encourage the modern Church not to ignore the city, but rather, to actively seek the “peace of the city” and to labor for its welfare. The presence of the Church in the city will impact with the message of the Kingdom of God the men and women who rule over us, set economic policy, compose the music we listen to and fashion the lifestyle that the rest of the region emulates.

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