Even before the times of the kings, carriage roads existed in Israel, including the king’s highway, a toll road for public use, (Numbers 20:17).
All roads leading to the cities of refuge, according to the Hebrew Talmud*, had to be well-maintained, 48 feet wide, and equipped with bridges and signposts marking the way.
It also stated that they even had to make roads safe for camel riding! No branches, balconies, or other projections could overhang roads or darken streets. Within city limits it was unlawful to pour water on roads or drop things from carts. Or to leave building materials, broken glass, or even thorns along streets. And anyone causing road damage had to pay for repairs.
Because under Jewish law, two factors in particular, necessitated good roads.
- It was important people could reach the cities of refuge.
- And it was paramount to reach first the tabernacle, and later the temple, for worship.
In New Testament times the Romans, to make governing their widespread empire easier, added more roads. Roads built for soldiers and officials, like those who took Paul to his trial before Felix. Or the centurion who met Christ along the road to Capernaum.
Though built mainly for soldiers and government, these six main highways, carried news from Nazareth near and far.
The nation’s busiest and only international highway passed through Nazareth, in Galilee. Connecting Rome with Damascus, it joined another road from Samaria, also leading to Nazareth, before going on to Ptolemais, along Galilee’s coastline.
Which strategically placed Nazareth along one of the great highways of world commerce. So that news from Nazareth re-echoed throughout Palestine, carrying even to the far lands of both East and West.
And along that busy road Christ found Matthew Levi, calling him to new work.
The call to become a highway for the King, carrying his Gospel into the world. We really know little about Matthew. But as a tax collector, it would have put him at the opposite end of the spectrum from the other disciples, politically, socially, and financially. Tax collectors often amassed large sums of money, even though theirs was an unpaid position. They were to make their profits by cheating the people. And because of this, devout Jews despised and avoided them.
But Christ was teaching his disciples how to become good neighbors. He wanted them to get along with everyone. To love and accept all. And to understand that he could change anyone. “Love your neighbor, and your enemy. Love one and all, and do them good.”
That is the message that echoed near and wide from Nazareth. And it still echoes today.
And just as he called Matthew, Christ still calls people today. “Come, follow me,” he says.”Become a highway for the King.” People today still need refuge. The refuge found in the Good News from Nazareth — that continues to resonate around the world.
In our rapidly changing world, we will likely meet many like Matthew Levi. Untrustworthy scoundrels, ready to take advantage of others. And our instinct is to avoid these who seem impossible of reform.
But Christ was teaching his disciples to embrace, not avoid.
He knew Matthew was a scoundrel. But he understood that such people often realize their great need. “It is the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy,” he told them. He took Matthew in and changed his life around. And in doing so, turned the other disciples’ world upside down. Teaching them to go the unhealthy and sinners, even thieves like Matthew. Showing them that everyone was their neighbor, whom he wanted them to love.
He wants to turn our world upside down too. And he’s sending us to the sick and the sinners. To love everyone as a neighbor, even our enemies.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, (Psalm 46:1)
Christ calls us to become highways for the King. Leading others to our city of refuge, called Jesus.
[*The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism, consisting mainly of discussions and commentary on Jewish history, law (especially its practical application to life), customs and culture. It consists of what are known as the Gemara and the Mishnah.]
Source: Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Chapter 4 Travelling in Palestine by Alfred Edersheim, in the Public Domain; (BibleHub.com]
Image of the Old Appian way: our own