7 January – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

Jesus has been baptised in the Spirit of his Father, and he has triumphed over the temptations of the Evil One during his 40 days in the wilderness. He is now ready to begin his public ministry.

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested for accusing Herod of adultery (because Herod had taken his brother’s wife as his own), Jesus withdrew from the region of the Jordan River where he had been with John, and went to the northern province of Galilee where he had grown up.

The word translated as ‘arrested’ literally means ‘handed over’, and is an expression that occurs several times in the gospel. It first refers to John the Baptist being ‘handed over’, and then to Jesus being ‘handed over’, first to the leadership of the Jews, and then to the Romans. Later, it will be used of the disciples being ‘handed over’ to various authorities because of their preaching the Gospel. Finally, it is used at every Eucharist (though somewhat lost in our present translation). At the consecration of the bread the celebrant says:

This is my Body which will be handed over [given up] for you.

Jesus had left Nazareth and his family, and Matthew tells us he went to live in “Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulon and Naphthali”. Capernaum will appear several times in Gospel stories.

For Matthew, Jesus’ going there fulfils a Hebrew Testament prophecy:

Zebulon and Naphthali, the way to the sea, Galilee of the Gentiles, there the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light…

These two territories were the first to be laid waste by the Assyrian invasion in 733 BC. Isaiah promised them a great future that is now being realised. Matthew stretches things a little to fit the prophecy in that, Capernaum was in Naphthali, and the sea mentioned by Matthew is the Sea of Galilee, while in the prophecy it actually refers to the Mediterranean.

Jesus’ preaching is summarised in one sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is very similar to the message that John the Baptist gave but, coming from Jesus, it is much richer in meaning. John proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom; Jesus himself is the coming of that Kingdom. ‘Repent’ means much more than the meaning we normally give to the word, namely, to regret, to be sorrowful for wrongs we have done. Here it is translated from the Greek word metanoia, which calls for a complete and radical turnaround in the way we see life. It is not concerned with the past but rather with the future.

‘The kingdom of heaven’ does not refer to the future life. It is not saying that we are all imminently about to leave this earth. ‘Heaven’, here, is a euphemism for the name of God, which Matthew writing for Jewish Christians, does not want to use. Among the Jews, God’s name was so holy that it could not be uttered by humans. Rather, the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ refers to the effective power of God’s presence here on earth, sometimes called God’s ‘reign’ on earth. And that kingdom is near because it is embodied in the person of Jesus himself. He represents the effective presence of God’s power, and that is seen clearly in the second part of today’s passage. It is the power of love and healing.

At this point in Matthew’s gospel he also relates the calling of the first four disciples, those who would be partners with him in the proclamation and the realisation of the Kingdom. But it is omitted in our reading for today.

We finish with a summary of the Kingdom work that Jesus was doing. He went all over Galilee, teaching in the Jewish synagogues. His preaching consisted of the proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom, and that was illustrated graphically by his healing all kinds of sicknesses. Healing means restoration to wholeness, and the goal of the Kingdom is a restoration to wholeness of the whole world.

Jesus’ fame even extended to the whole of the Roman Province of Syria, of which Galilee was a part. Large numbers of people came from these places in search of Jesus, and brought to him people suffering from all kinds of sicknesses. In addition to Galilee, they also came from the Decapolis (meaning ‘ten cities’), a federation of Greek cities mainly lying on the east side of the Jordan, from Judaea and its main city Jerusalem, and even from across the Jordan River.

It is time now to stop looking back at the Christmas celebrations, and look forward at why Jesus was born and the mission he had to do. Jesus’ coming to Capernaum is the coming of light in darkness. Jesus’ call to repentance is really a call to radical conversion, a turning round completely to face our Lord.

In him the Kingdom of Heaven is here among us. That is shown by the work that Jesus does: teaching, announcing the Good News of his coming and healing all kinds of disorders: physical, mental, emotional…

May we too experience a deep desire for conversion and also experience the healing power of Jesus in our lives, so that we may also become agents to heal others.

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