3d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 26, 2014
Matt 4: 12-23
Wartburg Home, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee” (Matt 4: 12).
For the last 2 Sundays, our gospel readings have placed Jesus with John the Baptist, being baptized and being heralded as the Lamb of God. Skipping over Jesus’ going into the wilderness and his temptations—which we’ll deal with when Lent comes—we read today of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
The passage begins ominously: John the Baptist has been arrested. John has dared to preach repentance. He has denounced sin, even in the highest places like King Herod’s household. St. Matthew is hinting at the fate that awaits Jesus because of his preaching.
The opposition and the hatred of the world await anyone who follows Jesus, anyone who is faithful to what Jesus teaches, e.g., about universal human dignity, the value of all human life, sexual morality. 8 days ago, the governor of this state declared opponents of abortion and homosexuality personae non gratae, people not welcome in New York. In case you missed the story buried deep inside Wednesday’s Journal News or Thursday’s NY Times—it wasn’t important enuf to merit their attention till Catholics and political conservatives raised Cain about it for at least 5 days—Andrew Cuomo said on the radio last Friday with reference to people who oppose his legislative agenda: “Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.” You and I, sisters, are “extreme conservatives”; we believe that unborn human beings are, in fact, human beings, and as such merit the same legal protection as other human beings. The governor hasn’t threatened to arrest us yet. But it’s clear enuf—we already knew it, didn’t we?—that like John the Baptist and Jesus we live in a hostile environment; we are challenged to be faithful in a culture that tells us either to shut up or to agree that evil is good.
So Jesus leaves the area of the Jordan and goes back to Galilee. He also leaves his home town of Nazareth and settles in Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know why he does that, but we can guess: Capernaum is on one of the main roads of the region, the highway between Syria and Jerusalem, and between the Mediterranean on the west and the Decapolis (the Ten Cities region) to the east. If Jesus is going to have an audience for his preaching, he has to go where the people are, the same way that advertisers compete for air time during the Super Bowl.
As he does so often in his gospel, Matthew links this relocation of Jesus to the Scriptures: “that what had been said thru Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled” (4:14). What’s being fulfilled here is Jesus’ bringing the light of God’s word to the darkness of the pagan world—the world of Roman soldiers and government officials, Greek and Arab traders, all the sorts of people who traveled that highway along the lake, as well as the Jews who lived there. It’s the same impetus that impels Pope Francis to tell bishops and priests to get out of the churches and into the public, into the barrios and the squares and social media where people are, and to bring them the light of God’s word, especially his mercy and compassion.
“From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17). Once he’s settled in Capernaum, he begins to preach. His preaching, as summarized by Matthew in that 1 sentence, has a twofold message: we must repent, and God’s kingdom is close, near at hand. Jesus himself is the voice of that kingdom; he personifies the presence of the kingdom. He opens the way for all of us to enter the kingdom.
But—and this is the key to the door to the kingdom that a lot of people overlook when they speak of God’s mercy and of Jesus’ inclusiveness—the way into the kingdom is the way of repentance. If John the Baptist had preached only that God was close at hand, Herod wouldn’t have arrested him, and Herodias wouldn’t have demanded his head. If Catholics and evangelicals today preached only God’s compassion, we’d fit in just fine with the powers of this earth: the politicians, the mass media, academia, warlords, drug traffickers, etc. But Jesus calls on us—all of us!—to repent, to admit our specific sins and our sinful passions, and to regret them for God’s sake—for the sake of the kingdom of heaven—and to amend our lives (as best we sincerely can within the limits of our human frailty).
|Jesus calls Simon and Andrew|
When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John, to come after him and become fishers of men (4:18-22—which obviously includes everyone, not only males), he’s calling them to join him in preaching his twofold message. This mission of Jesus, this message of Jesus, is exactly the Church’s mission and message still. When the world hears that certain of its values and its behaviors are evil and need to be repented, the world isn’t happy. If it can’t ignore the messenger, it shoots the messenger, as it were: off with their heads! Pro-lifers and adherents of public morality are not welcome here!
As St. Paul instructed Timothy, the Church must preach the Word “in season and out of season; whether it is convenient or inconvenient” (2 Tim 4:2). The most convincing preaching, however, isn’t what we read in an apostolic exhortation or a Catholic newspaper, or what we hear from the pulpit. It is the preaching of authentic Christian lives, the lives of those who are walking with Jesus on the road of repentance, turning from their various sins and practicing the virtues of charity, kindness, chastity, simplicity, honesty, devotion, etc. Think of yesterday’s saint, Francis de Sales, and of Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, St. Vincent de Paul. You who are Franciscans no doubt are familiar with the saying attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” So the preaching of Jesus that we should repent is addressed also to you and me, sisters; not only that we might be able to pass thru the door of the kingdom ourselves, but also that we might “proclaim the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23) by our manner of life, making the invitation to enter the kingdom an irresistible invitation.