At the end of every episode of “Inside The Actor’s Studio”, host James Lipton gives guests the famous set of questions inspired by French talk show host Bernard Pivot where we learn about the favorite things of each actor. We learn their favorite word, noise, and curse word (always a source of delight for the audience).
I’d love to hear God talk about His favorite things. What are the sounds and words He most loves to hear? What are the places He cherishes most? What if God’s been telling us all along and the answers are right there in the scriptures?
In his new book God’s Favorite Place On Earth, Frank Viola offers his take on God’s favorite place, the place Jesus seemed to take a shining to the most in His time on earth – the village of Bethany.
Unless you’re a Biblical scholar it’s easy to miss many of the narrative hints and features found in the scriptures. It’s normal to read the Bible in bits and pieces, passing by the patterns, places, and people which give the stories deeper connection and meaning.
Viola puts together the puzzle pieces left behind through the gospels revealing the beautiful picture of Bethany. While Jerusalem may have been the chosen land, Jesus was repeatedly rejected there. He found love and affection in the town of Bethany.
Much of Jesus’s time spent in Bethany revolved around four familiar Biblical characters who Viola positions at the center of his book – Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Simon the leper. It was in Bethany where Mary lay at his feet and poured expensive perfume over Him. It was in Bethany where Jesus healed Simon and brought Lazarus back from the dead. It was in Bethany where Jesus felt most at home on this planet.
God’s Favorite Place is not just a Biblical analysis of Jesus’s interactions in this small village. Every chapter also offers a narrative retelling of Jesus’s time in Bethany from the perspective of Lazarus.
It’s always difficult to give narrative voice to events so familiar and revered, trying to stay true to the scripture while still offering a creative interpretation. Viola hits more often than he misses in this department, although there are a few passages which suffer from adhering too strictly to the text.
What I truly enjoyed was the fresh perspective Viola gave to some of the most familiar and most misunderstood stories in the gospel. The way Viola reimagined Mary and Martha was challenging, setting them both in different lights than I had before. Rarely is Martha given any depth to her character when she is discussed; in God’s Favorite Place she is seen as the misunderstood servant she was.
But what I’ll remember most from the book is learning what Bethany meant. One meaning of the name Bethany is “house of figs”. Of course, one of Jesus’ most confusing teachings involved the cursing of the fig tree.
The tale of Jesus cursing the fig tree is one I’ve always struggled with in finding meaning. Why would Jesus have such a fit of rage over a simple tree?
Viola writes that Jesus was angry not because the fig tree was simply barren, but because it gave off the illusion of bearing fruit. Jesus was deceived by the tree just as he was by the people of Jerusalem, a city who gave off the illusion of holiness on the outside while being spiritually empty inside.
The fascinating part is where Jesus went right after cursing the tree. It’s no coincidence He went back to Bethany – the “house of figs”, a city filled with holy men and women whose actions truly bore the fruit of the spirit.
God’s Favorite Place On Earth is not just a call to understand Bethany better – it’s a call to for us all to be a Bethany for our Lord. It’s a call for us to place Christ above all, to submit to His leadership, to sit at His feet, and to “waste” our lives on Him. It’s a call to be a “house of figs” offering the fruits of the spirit to all we encounter.