Jan 26, 2020: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

the-people-who-walked-in-darkness-have-seen-a-great-light

1st Reading – Isaiah 8:23 – 9:3

First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali;
but in the end he has glorified the seaward road,
the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.
Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness:
for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.

Once again our first reading is from Isaiah, the 8th century BC prophet who tried to persuade King Ahaz to trust in God’s covenant promises. It describes the reversal of fortune for Israel: a new era of liberty and joy which will be ushered in by the future Messiah.

First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali;

The northern kingdom of Israel had formed an alliance with Syria.  They wanted Ahaz, king of the southern kingdom of Judah, to join them against Assyria. Assyria had already conquered parts of the northern kingdom, which Isaiah alludes to here as “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.”

Zebulun and Naphtali were two of Jacob’s twelve sons, after whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named.  The territory of these two tribes was the first to be devastated when Assyria invaded (733-32 BC).

but in the end he has glorified the seaward road, the land West of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.

King Ahaz thought the best way to be safe was to become a vassal state of Assyria. Here, Isaiah offers hope that if Ahaz trusts God, God will keep his people safe. Isaiah prophesies that God will eventually restore the ravaged lands to their former glory.

Our gospel reading for today sees in Jesus’ Galilean proclamation of the kingdom of God the fulfillment of this prophecy.

Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness; for there is no gloom where but now there was distress. 

The Assyrian ruler at the time of the invasion, Tiglath Pileser III, deported the local Jewish populations and dispersed them throughout his expanding empire.

The common word of darkness (hōshek) is used figuratively to describe the social disintegration, political collapse, and religious devastation the people were experiencing.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.

Isaiah pictures how things will be when there is a faithful king who trusts God’s covenant promises, characterizing their reversal of fortune with light.  The salvation that came with God dispelled the darkness and burst upon the land with the brightness of a shining light.

You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, as they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as men make merry when dividing spoils. For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed,

The words of the prophet are now directed to God.  Salvation has embraced the people, and through it they are granted a threefold joy expressed in metaphors:

  1. The joy and excitement of harvest time, which included the deep satisfaction of accomplishment, the savoring of luscious fruits, and the assurance of new life,
  2. The headiness of victory in battle, including the privilege of dividing the spoils that go to the vanquisher, and
  3. The relief of being freed from Assyrian oppression, seen in the image of harnessed farm animals, a fairly common image of enslavement.

God opens up a new future for the humble where gloom had previously existed.

as on the day of Midian.

This recalls the repression the Israelites endured from the Midianites (Judges 6:2-6), until God chose to raise up Gideon, who would miraculously defeat the enemy (Judges 7:15-25). Isaiah is saying that just as God defeated the enemies of Israel at Midian, so can God defeat the Assyrians.

In today’s gospel reading, Matthew reinterprets Isaiah’s words in the light of Jesus’ saving actions. Through Jesus, the words of the prophet have been fulfilled in a far more marvelous way than the prophet himself understood.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17

I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters,
by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you.
I mean that each of you is saying,
“I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”
or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,
and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,
so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.

Paul established the Christian community at Corinth during his second missionary journey.  He preached the gospel there for a year and a half (50-52 AD), aided by Silas and Timothy. After he left, the city had a series of apostolic visitors, including the eloquent Apollos, an Alexandrian Jewish Christian and a brilliant preacher (Acts 18:24-28).  He made many additional converts and confirmed the Corinthians in their faith.  It is possible that around this time Peter also paid a short visit to Corinth.  Up to that point, the Corinthian church was at peace and there was no sign of any doctrinal difficulties.

Unfortunately, the Corinthians were tempted to try to lord their faith over others, and the natural differences within the group degenerated into open factionalism.  They began to fight each other jealously. Saint Paul was in Ephesus when he received word about the situation in Corinth.  This letter, written shortly before Easter 57 AD, is his response.

I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

This appeal for unity is based on the Christian profession of faith.

that all of you agree in what you say,

“Agree in what you say” is a common Greek expression which does not refer to agreement in words only, but means “to be in perfect agreement.”

and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

Being “united” suggests a mutual adaptation, a readiness to give in to one another in the interests of harmony. He’s asserting that disunity among Christians is a disgraceful disruption of the expected Christian koinonia, or special kind of loving community (see Acts 2:42-47), and thus a denial of the whole reality of God’s saving work in Christ.

For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people,

Chloe is not further identified in the text of his letter, but she seems to have been head of a household in Corinth.  Some of her servants probably visited Paul and described the situation to him.

that there are rivalries among you.

The scene presented here is in contrast to the assumption by some that there was a “golden age” of the Church which later broke down.  The presence of factions in the Church right from the start reminds us that the perfect state of koinonia is something that Christians must always work towards.

I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”

The activities of Paul and Apollos in Corinth are outlined in Acts 18.

or “I belong to Kephas,”

Kephas is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Kepha which means “Rock.” He is referring to Peter (Matthew 16:18), who may have passed through Corinth and baptized some members of the community.

As with Paul and Apollos, there is no evidence that Peter was personally responsible for the group that rallied around his name.

or “I belong to Christ.”

The reference to Christ may be intended sarcastically here.  If this group existed, they probably constituted a small number who self-righteously proclaimed themselves best.  Their fault would not consist in their saying that they belonged to Christ, but in their implying that Christ belonged to them alone.  (Such people still exist!)

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

“Whenever Paul uses rhetorical questions, as he does here, he implies that the whole argument is absurd.”  [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 3,5]

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,

The reference to baptism and the contrast with preaching the gospel suggests that some Corinthians were paying special allegiance to the individuals who initiated them into the community.  Paul’s point here is that factions founded on attachment to certain ministers involve a dogmatic absurdity, which he indicates with biting sarcasm. There is only one Savior, Christ, who died on the cross, into whom men are incorporated by baptism, no matter who administers it.

and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.

Adherence to individual leaders based on their “wisdom of human eloquence” (this phrase is dripping with irony) is in conflict with the gospel and the cross.

The presence of factions in the Church right from the start reminds us that Christian unity is something that we must always work toward.

Gospel – Matthew 4:12-23

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,
he withdrew to Galilee.
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,
in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet
might be fulfilled:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers,
Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew,
casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen.
He said to them,
“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
At once they left their nets and followed him.
He walked along from there and saw two other brothers,
James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets.
He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father
and followed him.
He went around all of Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Cycle A of the lectionary is known as “The Year of Matthew,” because the gospel readings during Ordinary Time are taken from Matthew.

Matthew was a tax collector, seemingly well-to-do and popular among the people of Capernaum, where, St. Luke tells us, he had many friends (Luke 5:29).  This was significant given the generally low opinion Jews had of tax collectors in general; they regarded them as extortionists and collaborators with the Roman regime.

According to the Church Fathers, the Gospel of St. Matthew was written in Palestine, almost certainly in Aramaic, and was addressed mainly to Jews living in that region.  It is thought that it was first written around the year 50, but that this version disappeared soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.  Immediately after this a Greek translation of Matthew — the one we now possess — began to be used; this is regarded by the Church as canonical, authentic, and substantially the same as the original Aramaic.

In the interval between last week’s and this week’s reading, Jesus has spent 40 days in the desert, at the end of which he is tempted by the Devil (that excerpt, Matthew 4:1-11, will be the gospel reading on the First Sunday of Lent). Overcoming those temptations, he begins his public ministry.

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

John’s imprisonment by Herod Antipas signaled both the end of John’s ministry and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  The complete account of the imprisonment of John the Baptist is given in Matthew 14:1-12.

At first glance, Galilee seems like an unlikely place to launch a ministry. It had a reputation among devout Jews as one of the most ignorant, crass, and pagan areas of Palestine.

But in fact, Galilee was a perfect place to begin.  It was far enough away from the control of the leading party in Jerusalem, and because international trade routes to Damascus and Syria, Phoenicia, and Egypt passed through the area, in a sense, it was at the crossroads of the world.  It was densely populated with people who were open to new ideas: highly suitable for an unprecedented teacher with a novel message.  And starting in pagan Gentile territory also emphasized — without the apostles’ knowing it — the inclusive nature of Jesus’ call.

He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,

This note about Jesus moving to Capernaum expresses a note of finality: Jesus left his childhood home, never to live there again.

It was the beginning of something new.

in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”

Matthew quotes Isaiah, the same verses from our first reading.

Each of the four gospels was written by a different author, for a particular audience, with its own unique emphases. In his gospel, Matthew set out to show his Jewish audience that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah foretold by the prophets, the Son of God — which is why his gospel has been called “the gospel of the fulfillment.”  It stresses all the prophecies of the Old Testament which announce the coming of the Messiah: he is of the house of David (1:6), he is born of Mary, a virgin (1:22-23), and now, in the fullness of time, he makes his appearance, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” and fulfilling Isaiah’s promise of liberation.

Because Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ childhood, is in Zebulun, and his current residence, Capernaum, is in Naphtali, Matthew sees Isaiah’s prophecy of the light rising upon Zebulun and Naphtali as now being fulfilled.  Jesus is the great light Isaiah described, the light that was promised to dispel the darkness of sin and death.

Note that the areas that were first destroyed by the Assyrians are the first to be restored by Jesus’ message.

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Jesus officially begins his ministry.

Although he preached the same message as John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2), he did it in fulfillment of the prophecies rather than in anticipation of a future event.  The message of repentance becomes the central message of Jesus and, along with the resurrection, the basis and object of Christian hope.

As we continue through Matthew’s gospel we will see that “the kingdom of heaven” remains the central topic of Jesus’ preaching. For this reason, it is very important that we grow in our understanding of just what Jesus means when he talks about “the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus is not referring to the difference between heaven and earth but the difference between the bondage of sin and the freedom of love, between the suffering that results from the disorder of sin and the freedom of suffering that exists where justice and peace reign. Jesus’ healings are part of his preaching because healing is an experience of the kind of freedom from bondage that is indicative of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven exists wherever God’s will reigns.

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea;

To spread this message, Jesus immediately calls followers, which is the closest Jesus comes to founding a Church before the crucifixion. He did not choose the religious professionals, but tax collectors, zealots, itinerants — and salty fishermen.

The first of two call stories presented in this reading is that of Simon and Andrew. Note how Matthew foreshadows Jesus’ later renaming Simon as Peter (Greek: Petros, Aramaic: Kepha), which doesn’t actually happen in the gospel until 16:18.

they were fishermen.

The Galilean fishing industry was quite prosperous and exported its products. The sparkling, touristy shoreline of the Lake of Galilee was more like today’s Riviera than a sleepy fishing village in Maine. The lakeshore town of Tiberias attracted tourists from the whole Greco-Roman world.

He said to them, “Come after me, 

“Come after me” is technical language of a teacher to disciples, but Jesus goes beyond the normal pupil/teacher relationship by taking the initiative (followers typically initiated their relationship with rabbis, not the other way around).

To become Jesus’ disciple they must literally “come after” him, walking behind him in his footsteps.

and I will make you fishers of men.”

Jesus calls them not just to be his disciples, but to be sent on mission. They will join Jesus in his role of announcing the imminent in-breaking of the kingdom of God and in cooperating with the coming of the kingdom in both word and deed.

At once they left their nets and followed him.

Jesus expected, and received, prompt obedience from his followers.

The radical nature of their response should not be overlooked.  These men are not poor beggars, they are all gainfully employed in one of the most stable occupations in the area.  They have a lot to lose by following Jesus, yet they drop everything, on the spot, and do precisely that.

He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

The second call story is of James and John, which sometimes elicits a negative response due to the rupturing of family ties that occurs.  This is indeed an unusual move in a society where kinship ties were very strong and loyalty to one’s father was of paramount importance.  However, being called by God reprioritizes all of life, even our closest relationships and our source of livelihood. To be a follower of Jesus means changing your life.

However, in light of this, it’s important to note that Jesus also opposed neglect of parents in their old age (Matthew 15:4-6).

He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Jesus’ ministry is summarized into three categories: teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news, and healing those suffering from disease and illness.  The latter two were seen as signs of the advent of the age of fulfillment (Isaiah 61:1; 35:5-7).

Connections and Themes

The readings this week continue the theme of discipleship, addressing various aspects of the question of call.  They depict discipleship as a call from God, and they help us see that discipleship calls us from certain situations and to others.

The call. Discipleship is not something we take upon ourselves; we are called to it.  Some people are very conscious of this call.  They are aware of it in their aspirations and dreams; they recognize it in the events of their lives.  They hear the call as clearly as Simon, Andrew, James, and John heard the voice of Jesus.  For others, the call to discipleship is not so clear.  They may experience an undefined restlessness, a dissatisfaction with their lives.  Or they may be very satisfied with life when they hear the call, as the four in the gospel seem to have been.

People can respond to the call in one of two ways: They consider the mere suggestion of discipleship an intrusion into their plans, or they drop what they are doing, leave their former concerns behind, and follow Jesus. In either case, the call to discipleship originates with God.

Called from. There seems to be a misunderstanding about being called and leaving everything behind.  Although the gospel says the four men left their occupation of fishing to follow Jesus, this kind of abandonment was not, and still is not, required of all.  We saw in the readings of last week that it was in the ordinary events of life that our salvation unfolds.  For most people, this is precisely where they are to function as disciples.

Still, disciples of Jesus are called to leave behind certain ways of living as they follow him.  They are called away from lives of pettiness and division.  They are called away from the kind of factionalism that seems to have threatened the unity of the Corinthian church.  They are called away from narrow-mindedness and mean-spirited competition.  In many ways, this is much more difficult than leaving one’s entire life behind.

Called to.  Disciples of Jesus are called to lives of servanthood. They are called to proclaim the gospel fo the kingdom of heaven, whether that be in public ministry or in the circumstances of everyday life.  They are called to heal disease and illness of mind and body and spirit.  They are called to smash the yoke that burdens others and, if it cannot be smashed, to help carry the load.  They are called to work for unity and peace even in the midst of diversity and misunderstanding, or better, precisely in the midst of diversity and misunderstanding. They are called to respect the struggles and commitment of others.  Disciples of Jesus are called to be light in a world of darkness and gloom.  This calling does not mean they have all the answers.  They may not even know the questions.  However, they have the assurance of God, who is our light and our salvation.  The disciples of Jesus are called to continue in their time and place the ministry of the Servant of the Lord.

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