3d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 22, 2017
Matt 4: 12-23
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, … the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light…” (Matt 4: 15-16). (For those who don’t know, Zebulun and Naphtali were 2 of the 12 tribes of Israel, and they were allotted land in the northern part of the country, what later became known as Galilee.)
St. Matthew picks up a prophecy of Isaiah, using a Greek translation that was in general use in the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire in the 1st century; hence the slight variance in wording between our 1st reading, based on Isaiah’s Hebrew, and the gospel reading. Matthew finds the prophecy’s fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus, which he introduces us to with 2 very general summaries of it sandwiched around the calling of the 1st 4 apostles.
The 1st little summary is that Jesus moved from Nazareth, which was off the beaten track, and “went to live in Capernaum by the sea” (4:13), i.e., the Sea of Galilee, along a principal trade route between Jerusalem and Damascus, north and south, and east-west between the Mediterranean coast and the lands beyond the Jordan River. And in this little crossroads town, this center of commerce and the fishing business, he “began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17).
The 2d little summary, after he calls 4 fishermen to follow him, is that he went all around Galilee “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people” (4:23).
When Jesus preaches repentance, he uses a word, metanoeite in Greek, that means “to change one’s mind, to be converted in heart, to turn one’s life around. John the Baptist, too, whose arrest precedes Jesus’ preaching (mentioning that, Matthew sounds an ominous note to his readers), had preached this repentance in view of the coming of the Messiah. Jesus, on the other hand, calls for repentance in view of the kingdom’s presence.
If Galilee has been a land in darkness, as Matthew says, the darkness is that of evil: of sin and its effects. Jesus comes as light. He comes to cast away sin, to heal souls, to forgive. The prerequisite is repentance: the willingness, the desire, to be rid of sin and walk in God’s light. Unless one admits one’s sins and sincerely wants to throw them off, wants to amend one’s life, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is useless; it can’t touch the unrepentant heart. (But we can pray that unrepentant hearts be converted; or, in the words of Ezekiel, that hearts of stone be turned into hearts of flesh [36:26; 11:19]. That’s one of my own most frequent prayers, for the conversion of my own heart, and when I say to some of you that we priests need your prayers, that’s one of the reasons I have in mind.)
Jesus preaches, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Unlike John the Baptist, he doesn’t say, “Someone’s coming.” He says, “It’s at hand.” Jesus himself embodies the kingdom of God. He is the gentle hand of God that rules the universe—a rule that he demonstrates in his power to turn fishermen into fishers of men (4:19), courageous apostles (that was a miracle in itself!)—and his power to “heal every disease and illness.” Matthew says, as if pointing to a parallelism, “He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and cured every disease and illness among the people”—“proclaiming” and “curing” running together like 2 rails of track.
The evils of disease and illness are signs of the greater evil of sin, pieces of the realm of the prince of darkness. They are pieces of the darkness covering the land. Jesus’ power over sickness is an outward sign of his power over the sickness of our souls.
When people brought their illnesses to Jesus, he healed them. But 1st they had to come to him, personally or thru an emissary like the Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13). No one got healed without some kind of a request, a plea because of need. Such healing was a sign that the Good News of the kingdom was present. The light had arrived to conquer the darkness. The next step for the victory of light was repentance, turning from sin. It took quite a while for Jesus to get that message across, that he’d come for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the relationship between God and men (turning the apostles into fishers of men!).
And that kind of healing, too, required an admission of need, an admission of sinfulness—a conversion of heart.
Last Saturday, a columnist in the Washington Post headlined his opinion piece, “Dear God, are we being punished?” He rehearsed some biblical examples of the punishment of sinners, like Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts before asking what we—whoever his “we” is—have done “to deserve punishment in the form of Trump.” Then he mentioned our social sins like ignoring the needs of immigrants, education, the social safety net, better wages for workers, attention to our democracy—so many needs that we ignore, such values as the Rev. Martin Luther King stood for; he was writing a column for the King weekend. And he called for a “fair, just and inclusive America” such as Dr. King and a recent President “fought hard to create.”
Well, yeah, whether you think Trump is “punishment” for our collective sins or have a different opinion on that subject—I’m not going there!—you have to admit there are social injustices in America. And I suggest that the columnist missed the most egregious examples of the sins of our society, sins that we don’t seem willing to admit, much less to seek remedies for, to seek healing. Rather, we celebrate our sins and call them progress. On this anniversary weekend of Roe v. Wade, we recall the gross injustice of killing unborn human beings, which our Washington Post columnist didn’t mention. We need to mention the injustice our Western society does to children by promoting the breakdown of the family; more and more children being born out of wedlock, being fatherless, being the victims of divorce and therefore being far more likely than children in 2-parent families to drop out of school, to commit acts of delinquency, to join gangs, to do drugs, to get involved in sexual activity at an entirely inappropriate age, and to live in poverty. Something in our family life and social values breakdown is causing an epidemic of teenage suicide, of which I was reminded in a personal email this morning.
Let us acknowledge and pay homage to the heroic efforts many single parents make to raise their kids to be virtuous, to complete their education, and to become good citizens and even saints. Our Salesian founder St. John Bosco was raised by a single mother, and many single moms and dads do their jobs well. But, statistically, the overwhelming tendency is otherwise. Studies repeatedly show that “the central problem underlying … child poverty is family breakdown”—and family breakdown is largely the result of self-centeredness, individualism, “my freedom at all costs.
A fundamental disregard for the nature and purpose of our sexuality, a disregard that leads to porn, easy sex, contraception, a lack of commitment to marriage, the abuse of others, homosexual activity, confusion about sexual identity—these are sins for which God is punishing us—not with this or that elected official but with chaos and violence in our schools and our streets, and sometimes even with political dysfunction. The violence of abortion and assisted suicide fosters the “life is cheap” or “expendable” mentality that gives us gang warfare, shootings on our streets and in our schools, assaults on the handicapped as a form of entertainment.
If we want God’s grace, God’s blessing, as individuals, we have to admit our need and turn to God for healing, with a purpose of amendment, an intention to try to change our ways. Thank God for the healing offered us in the sacrament of Reconciliation!
“Dear God, why are we being punished?” As a nation, too, we have to admit our need, admit the sins that have brought us where we are, amend our attitudes and intentions, and seek healing: in respect for all human life, in treating everyone with decency and fairness, in recognition of the irreplaceable role of marriage for the shaping of a healthy society. Let us walk in the light and not in the darkness.
 Colbert I. King, Washington Post online, Jan. 14, 2017.
 Jan. 22.
 Russell Shaw, “Child Poverty and Marriage,” The Pilot online, Jan. 18, 2017.