in Ordinary Time
Jan. 23, 2011
Matt 4: 12-23
Christian Brothers, Iona College
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.
“Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4: 17).
Unfortunately, the 4 evangelists weren’t historians in the vein of Matt or Joe [Sr. Irene], and so they give usvery little in the way of a time frame. Jesus has come to the Jordan and been baptized by John the Baptist, and he’s spent some time in the wilderness, praying and undergoing temptation. Then—what? At some unspecified time, Herod the tetrarch arrests John, and Jesus leaves Judea and returns to Galilee—“withdraws” is Matthew’s word, more suggestive than the phrasing of his source, Mark, who says merely that Jesus “came into Galilee” after John was arrested (1:14). The suggestion is that he “withdraws” to escape danger, but I don’t know why he would “withdraw” into the territory under Herod’s direct rule. St. John gives us the most interesting reading, indicating that Jesus, like John, had been “making and baptizing disciples” along the Jordan before departing Judea for Galilee because the Pharisees had learned of the extent of his ministry in Judea (4:1). St. Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention of John’s arrest or of Pharisees, indicating only that the Spirit led, or directed, Jesus into Galilee (4:14).
What’s of interest to us is that Matthew, like Mark, begins on the ominous note of John’s arrest. The public ministry of Jesus begins with the powers of evil having struck a blow that, we know, will be deadly. If we were teaching literature, we might see foreshadowing here: Jesus is going to walk toward the same fate as John and various other prophets. In fact, Matthew has already given us a strong hint of that in the story of King Herod’s attempt to slay the infant Jesus.
Matthew links the ominous note about John’s fate with darkness. “Galilee of the Gentiles” is a place whose “people sit in darkness…a land overshadowed by death” (4:16). What’s happening to John even as Jesus begins his ministry is representative of the general state of humanity. Into this state of darkness and death comes Jesus as a “great light” (v. 16).
Jesus attacks the darkness and death at their root: he begins “to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17). If mankind lives in darkness, it’s because of sin. If mankind is doomed to die, it’s because of sin. The cure, the light, the way to life is repentance, opening oneself to the King of Heaven rather than to the Prince of Darkness. If Herod the tetrarch, ruler of this “land overshadowed by death,” would open himself to the light, then neither John nor any other of Herod’s subjects would be in physical danger, and Herod himself wouldn’t be in danger of spiritual death.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus has already begun to gather followers from among those who’d been disciples of John the Baptist, including particularly Andrew and Simon Peter, as well as Philip and Nathanael (1:35-51), and he’s brought these followers with him into Galilee (2:1-2). The Synoptic Gospels, however, have it that he came to Galilee alone—we could read them as if he came directly from his bout with Satan in the desert—and he “went to live in Capernaum by the sea” (Matt 4:13). There he began to preach, to travel about, to go into the synagogs, alone, for an unspecified time. Since almost the beginning of Christianity, the followers of Jesus have tried to reconcile these variant stories about Jesus. I guess that’s partly because the human heart naturally seeks truth: scientific truth, historical truth, philosophical truth, religious truth. We know instinctively that events and the world around us can help us understand meaning: what happened, and what does that mean for us?
It’s hard for us to believe that the story as Matthew tells us happened in a vacuum. Jesus is just walking by the shore, sees Simon and Andrew, calls them to follow him and become fishers of men, and they drop their nets and go along with him (4:18-20); likewise, the sons of Zebedee who, moreover, abandon their father (4:21-22). (Wouldn’t you like to know what Zebedee had to say about that?) How does this account square with John’s Gospel? Did these 4 already know Jesus from time spent around John the Baptist? Is it simply that they’d already heard Jesus in the Capernaum synagog? Were “their hearts burning within them” already from listening to Jesus’ commentaries on the Scriptures, like the hearts of Cleopas and his companion later on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:32)? What was it that made Andrew and Simon, James and John leave everything and follow Jesus?
Calling of the Disciples by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Of course we know what it was, ultimately. “Master, you have the words of eternal life,” Simon will reply to Jesus when many of his followers desert him after the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:68). Maybe Andrew and Simon, James and John had already come to see in Jesus the “great light,” the presence of the kingdom of heaven. Certainly they came to see that in him eventually.
As have we, which is why we’re here, worshiping God thru Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The world in which we live is still very much “overshadowed by death” in countless ways. So many people still “sit in darkness.” And we know that Jesus is the light for those people, the life for this world. So we, too, have left family and other possible livelihoods and followed him. Our own responses to Jesus can give us some idea of why those young men answered Jesus’ invitation the way they did. How much more eager to go with him than we were X number of years ago, must they have been, seeing and hearing him in the flesh, sensing his charisma, feeling his personal warmth and interest in them!
So we have agreed to go with Jesus, eager to be forgiven whatever moral failings we have, eager to be assured of God’s love and acceptance, eager to walk in the light, eager to find a secure way to God’s kingdom. We’ve agreed to be fishers of human souls, like the apostles, and we’ve spent many years doing that.
(Unfortunately, I didn't note where I found this or who painted it.)
How much have we done what Jesus did to Simon and Andrew, James and John: called others to “come after” us, come with us, in this fishing enterprise, to be our partners, to be our place-takers, as the apostles took Jesus’ place after the ascension? It’s not enuf that we be with Jesus, that we lead others to Jesus thru education, catechesis, service. We have to be in our own lives advertisements for the following of Jesus in close discipleship, in joy, in fellowship. We also have to invite men and women to join us because the mission of Jesus must continue after we get old, after we pass away. We have to offer a warm and welcoming atmosphere, especially to young people, making them feel comfortable around religious men [women]. When we spot someone with potential, we have to issue an invitation—not to become one of us right away, but to consider it, and in the meantime to draw closer to Jesus and pray for guidance, and we have to accompany that young person with our own prayer, interest, and warmth.
There are a lot of young men and women who want a deeper relationship with Jesus, who are willing to live lives of sacrifice and commitment and service. They need help in figuring out how to do that. That’s not only for guidance counselors. It’s also for us. And for some of those young men and women when we’ve come to know them and have their trust, the suggestion that they might become fishermen will be appropriate. As much as Jesus needed to gather disciples around him who would not only be his mission but also would continue his mission, so do we need to find those who will carry on his mission of enlightening the world, combating the shadows of death, announcing God’s kingdom.