Sunday of Week 3 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Isaiah 8:23-9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17; Matthew 4:12-23

There are three distinct parts in today’s Gospel reading:

  1. Jesus, the light of the nations and the fulfilment of Hebrew Testament prophecies;
  2. a call to total conversion, to live in that light;
  3. early responses to the call.

After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus moves up north to Galilee. It is his home province. It is where he will begin his public life.

John’s “arrest”
A note about John’s “arrest”. The verb in the original Greek is paradidomi, which literally means to “hand over”. This is a theme word which goes right through the Gospel:

  • John the Baptist was handed over – and executed (by King Herod);
  • Jesus was handed over – and executed (by both Jews and Gentiles – he died for all);
  • Many of Jesus’ disciples were handed over – and some were executed (mainly by Gentiles).

And this “handing over” has been happening to disciples ever since, down to our own day. Paradoxically, persecution can always be the expected result of living the Gospel of truth and love.

At the consecration during every Eucharist, the celebrant says:

Take this all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.

“Given up” is perhaps a less than ideal translation of the Latin tradetur which means “will be handed over” and is the Latin equivalent of the Greek verb paradidomi. So, in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ is also “handed over” to us. And we, in turn, collectively as the Body of Christ in the Christian community, are expected to continue that handing over of ourselves in the service of the Gospel and the promotion of the Kingdom.

Matthew says that Jesus left his home town of Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum, a town in Galilee, which, he tells us, is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, “in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali”. This reminds the evangelist of a prophecy from Isaiah, which Matthew now sees being fulfilled.

At this time, Galilee did not seem an obvious choice for the Messiah’s mission. It was regarded as a ‘remote’ province (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”, Nathanael asked with some surprise and cynicism). It was a rebellious region where even Jews were not noted for their observance of the Law.

Yet the prophecy suggests that the Light of the World is to be found in Galilee. Galilee, of all places, is to be the light of the nations? Not for nothing do we speak of a “God of surprises”!

But it is precisely in this Galilean town of Capernaum that Jesus, the Messiah, begins his mission. His preaching is summed up in one deceptively simple sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” ‘Preaching’ would be better translated ‘proclaiming’, making an announcement of Good News.

Good News
What is this “good news”? The Greek, eu-angelion, from which comes the Latin evangelium, is translated into modern English as “gospel”. This is a variant of the earlier ‘God-Spel’ or ‘good news’.

And what is this good news? The Good News is that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is near. “Kingdom of Heaven” can be a very misleading term. To many, it may be identified with “heaven”, the “place up there” where we hope to go to after death…if we have behaved ourselves.

In fact, it is important to be aware that the term in this context has far less to do with a future life than with our life here in this world. The other gospels speak more directly of the “kingdom of God” which, in fact, is what Matthew also means. However, Matthew’s gospel was written for a Christian community consisting primarily of converted Jews. In their tradition, they were very reluctant ever to use the name of God directly, and so Matthew throughout his gospel speaks of God in indirect ways. One way is to use the term “heaven”, or to use the passive voice of a verb, e.g. “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” He does not say by whom they are forgiven, but God is clearly understood.

Again, “kingdom” for us suggests the territory ruled over by a king. The Greek word the evangelists use is basileia from the word basileus, which means a ‘king’. But basileia is better translated as ‘rule’, ‘reign’ or ‘kingship’. It indicates the power of being a king rather than the place over which one is king. To be ‘in the kingdom’, then, is not to be in a particular place, either in this life or the next. Rather it is to be living one’s life – wherever we are – under the loving power of God. It is to be in a relationship of loving submission to one’s God and Lord and to be in an environment where values like truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom, commmunity, and peace all prevail.

The way to enter that relationships is, in Jesus’ words, to “repent”. This is the response to Jesus’ call. ‘Repent’ usually means to be sorry for, to regret some wrong actions we have done in the past. Jesus, however, is asking for much more than that. It is a call, not to wipe out the past, which is really not possible, but for a change of direction from now on and into the future. The Greek word which is rendered by many translations as ‘repent’ is metanoia. This word implies a radical change in one’s thinking; it means looking at life in a completely new way, making what is now sometimes called a ‘paradigm shift’. This new way of seeing life is spelt out through the whole of the Christian Testament.

It is only when we begin to make this radical change that we begin to become part of that Kingdom, that we begin effectively to come under the influence of God’s power in our lives. We begin to see things the way God sees them, and our behaviour changes accordingly.

The call is not just to be sorry for past sins, and not to do them any more. There has to be a complete change of direction, a deep involvement in doing God’s work. That work involves working with others for an end to poverty and destitution, to hunger and joblessness, to communal and religious hatred, to rampant greed, ambition and shameless consumerism, and to create a world of love and care – the special attributes of God.

The kingdom has not yet arrived. There is still much to be done – right here where we live.

This is a message not just for Catholics or Christians, but for people everywhere. The Kingdom goes far beyond the boundaries of the Church, and the Kingdom is being realised in many ways in places where Christianity has yet to penetrate. A majority of the world’s population does not know the Gospel of Jesus, but that does not mean that the values of the Kingdom are absent. We must learn not to see Christianity or Catholicism in sectarian terms – ‘them’ and ‘us’. The message of Jesus is a vision of life for all humanity and should be communicated as such.

First partners
After his preaching, Jesus finds the first partners for his work. They are not Pharisees or Scribes, not scholars or influential members of the community, but fishermen, who may have been quite illiterate in the sense that they could not read or write – although they may well have been steeped in the oral tradition of their Jewish faith, knowing their Hebrew Testament much better than most of us know our New Testament!

It is significant that the call takes place right in their working place. The initiative for the call comes from Jesus. “I chose you, you did not choose me.”

For them it means a metanoia, a complete break in their lifestyle. There is a complete letting go.

“Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus.” They put their total trust in Jesus, leaving behind their only means of livelihood, not knowing where it would all lead. Jesus himself had already taken this step in leaving Nazareth, his family and his livelihood as a carpenter.

From now on their life would consist, not in worrying what they could get and keep, but in service to their brothers and sisters, especially those in greatest need.

At the same time, there is no evidence that they lived in destitution or want. Leaving the tools of the only way of life they had known was to choose to lead a simple lifestyle, only having those things necessary for their sustenance and their work, the new work Jesus was calling them to do.

Their security now came from the new lifestyle they were inaugurating, life in a mutually supporting community, where the needs of each one were taken care of. This, in effect, brought a life of greater material, emotional and social security than is found in our individualistic, competitive, rat-race style of survival.

One great family
They separated from their families not because they did not love them, but because, as disciples of Jesus, they realised they belonged to a much larger family. They were learning not only to love their own, but to love especially all who were in need of love, care and compassion.

In the beginning, their first concern may be family members (early on, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law), but later on they will give priority to those in greater need, non-family members, foreigners, total strangers, even enemies. To follow Jesus is to belong to a much bigger family.

In the Second Reading, too, Paul warns against divisions in the Christian family. It seems that the Christians in Corinth were dividing into factions and identifying themselves with various community leaders: “I am for Paul”, “I am for Cephas (Peter)”; even “I am for Christ”. It is clear that such divisions are harmful. All can only be for one person, the One who suffered, died and rose for them, the One in whose name all of them were baptised – Jesus their Lord.

We have, unfortunately, many such divisions among Christians today – “I am a Catholic”, “I am an Anglican… a Lutheran… a Methodist… a Presbyterian…” The list is, alas, endless. This is not the kind of family that Jesus intended. Such a dysfunctional family is not in a good position to give effective witness to the Good News of truth and love and fellowship which Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper (John 17).

Today’s call is asking us not just to fit Jesus into our chosen way of living, but to fit ourselves into his vision of life. In doing so, we are not making a sacrifice; we are on to a sure winner where we can only gain.

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