Lectionary commentary: third Sunday of Ordinary Time
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 8:23-9:3
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 27:1. 4. 13-14. R/. v. 1:1
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1:10-13. 17
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 4:12-23
So Christmas has passed and we are into what our Lectionary calls ORDINARY TIME. There is a outline of what this is in the General Introduction at the beginning of the Lectionary:
Ordinary Time begins on the Monday after the Sunday following 6 January; is lasts until the Tuesday before Lent inclusive. It begins again after Pentecost Sunday and ends before evening prayer I of the first Sunday of Advent.
General Introduction, ch.V, §5.
That tells us when we are in Ordinary Time, that is, time outside the greater periods, of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Eater, and Pentecost. But there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time. It is sacred time. The whole year is sacred time. The great feasts are sacred. So is Ordinary Time but its focus is different. On attention is not on events. It is on books. It is when we turn our attention on the whole of a Gospel. Celebrating Christmas and Easter means dwelling on readings appropriate to those great feasts. In Ordinary Time the focus is on the whole of a Gospel.
In Ordinary Time the question changes. It is not What is this feast all about? It is about What is this Gospel saying to us? This year the question is What does the Gospel of Matthew mean? What does it mean to the Church, to this parish, to me? The same is true in the Year of Mark and the Year of Luke.
So as we are going to spend a long time with Matthew, we need to ask questions that we would ask of any book we decide to read. It is essential to know as much as we can about the book before we open it. So we must turn to the basic questions. It is well work the effort.
Know your author. If I know Barbara Cartland I will not expect her book to be a whodunit from Agatha Christie.
The difficulty we all have with our Gospels is that when we hear a piece of a Gospel read at Mass the deacon or the priest proclaims The Gospel of the Lord. But he started by announcing A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew. So the first thing to notice is a surprise. The ancient and proper title of the Gospel book we will hear throughout this year is,
ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW,
THE GOSPEL BY MATTHEW.
Matthew does not “author” the Gospel. Matthew does not invent the gospel. The gospel is,
THE GOSPEL OF GOD.
The ancient scrolls we have say quite simply,
ACCORDING TO MATTHEW.
That is why at Mass when the Gospel has been read, the priest or deacon announces,
THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD.
The word LORD in this sentence refers to God, not to Jesus. St. Paul, for example, was the every earliest Christian to provide us with some writings. In his longest letter, the Letter to Roman Christians, his opening sentence is:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David …
Each of our Gospels is the gospel of God. Each of the four Gospels is rightly described as concerning his Son. That’s why we stand for the Gospel. We are standing to recognise that what we are hearing comes to us from God and that it is God who is telling us about God’s Son.
The writers of our four Gospels are instruments conveying to us the gospel of God concerning his Son. Our Gospels are inspired by God. That is, the men who gave us the four Gospels were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what God wanted to be written. But they remained men. The made mistakes; they were human writers and struggled with the burdens that all writers must bear trying to get the right words on to the page.
So, in order to grasp what each Gospel is about, we must ask a series of questions that we would put to any book, ancient or modern, in order to understand what it is we are about to embrace as “the gospel of God”.
Who penned this Gospel? Where did he write it? When did he write it? Why did he write it? Why has it landed on the lectern in our church? What does it demand of us, in our time and in our place?
These six questions will take up some time as we proceed to make our way through the Gospel according to Matthew in Ordinary Time in this blessed year. To know our Gospels is to be blessed. It is to be introduced to God’s Son by his Father in heaven.
The simplest and truest answer is that we do not know. Ancient writers read the Gospel according to Matthew and came across this story:
And he[Jesus] called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
They assumed that the author of the Gospel was this Matthew, the tax collector, who not only was called by Jesus to be an apostle but was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the Gospel that has come down to us.
The phrase “according to Matthew”, “according to Luke” (and so Mark and John) was not added to manuscripts, until the end of the second century, about 100 years or more after they were written. Rather, our manuscript evidence, that is, the earliest copies we have of these texts that have come down to us have names added to them. But there is no certain identity markers that would confirm who these people were. However, we are not left whistling in the wind. At least, not entirely.
First, we have a name: Matthew:
We know that Jesus called a tax collector to be a disciple:
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The same story is told in an earlier Gospel, that of Mark, but he calls the tax collector Levi the son of Alphaeus. Luke also calls him Levi (Luke 5:27). So which is he?
The Greek form of the name, given above, comes from a Hebrew. Matthew is a Jewish name. It means “gift of God”. So we can be certain that the writer of this Gospel was a Jew. This is of immense importance: whoever and whatever else he was, Matthew was a Jew.
It is difficult to see how a Jewish outsider (a tax collector) acquired sufficient Greek to write a sophisticated book such as Matthew’s Gospel. It is difficult to believe that a Jewish tax collector, an Aramaic speaker (the language Jesus and his fellow-countrymen spoke), not a scholar as far as Jewish faith was concerned, one by trade totally alien to Jewish religious concerns, could write a text so familiar with Jewish religious traditions. Did this tax collector spend half the day reading the great prophets, praying the Psalms, and worshipping in the Temple? At one time it was believed that Matthew composed a Hebrew text that formed the basis of his later production of the Greek Gospel. But why write in Hebrew? Jesus spoke Aramaic, as did everyone else in Palestine. There may have been scribblings in Hebrew somewhere in the background of the Gospel according to Matthew. But there is no real evidence that such existed, or if they did, that Matthew used them.
To conclude, an otherwise unknown Jew, entirely familiar with Jewish faith, with its laws and traditions, became a Christian. He made himself exceedingly familiar with Jesus through his knowledge of Mark’s Gospel and the traditions concerning Jesus handed on to him by his fellow-Christians. He had extensive knowledge of the teaching of Jesus and was familiar with the development of the Christian story from its earliest days in Jerusalem. Matthew was a scribe. He wrote this about scribes:
… every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
Matthew was such a scribe.
It is widely believed that Matthew the Jew wrote his Gospel in the city of Antioch in Syria, the third largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. Antioch was an important commercial centre and a gateway to the East. It was a prosperous city with a large population of Jews and non-Jews. It is that mix of Jew and Gentile that underlines the concerns so evident in Matthew’s Gospel.
The fact that Matthew was a Jew, whoever else he might have been, means that he was a Christian who came to faith in Jesus with the fullness of Jewish understanding of God and with all that God meant to Jewish people in his veins. He was not a blank sheet on which the Christian message was written. He was inspired to believe that a fellow Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, was Immanuel, God-with-Us.
We know that Antioch was an early outpost of Christian witness. We know that the first Christians were Jews and that they were sufficiently organised and outward looking to support St. Paul and St. Barnabas in their missionary exploits. We know that following the death of St. Stephen, many Christian Jews left Jerusalem and went north to Antioch. We are well informed about the most serious conflict that broke out among Jewish and Gentile Christians in that city.
Does a Gentile have to adopt the Jewish way of life in order to become a Christian? Is the only true Christian a Jewish Christian? We know that when St. Peter came to Antioch he would not associate with Gentile Christians, preferring to eat kosher food with his fellow Jews. Paul fought publicly with Peter over the issue. The whole of Paul’s Letter to Galatian Christians (especially chapter 2) is an angry response from Paul, condemning Peter’s association only with fellow Jews. For Paul that was a corruption of the gospel of God. It was that serious. Paul left Antioch and never again returned to a city where he had received much encouragement and help in his mission to Gentile people. As we shall see, the conflict that plagued the Church in Antioch lies at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel.
Pretty well everyone believes that the Gospel according to Matthew was written around 90 A.D. Trying to establish the date that each of our four Gospels was written is an important business. It helps us to trace developments as communities of Christians grew up in the Roman Empire, both in the east and the west, and, indeed, in the south. For the important churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), in Egypt and further afield in Africa bear witness to developments in understanding the person of Christ Jesus and in responding to his teaching. Faith in Jesus did not just expand geographically; it deepened in understanding as it travelled.
We know that Mark’s Gospel was written sometime between 67 A.D. and 73 A.D., after the first that burned down more than half the city of Rome. We know that Matthew used Mark’s Gospel extensively. There are about 18,300 words in the Gospel of Matthew and there are about 11,300 words in the Gospel of Mark. About 90% of Mark’s text is to be found in Matthew’s Gospel. Obviously, Matthew’s Gospel was written after Mark’s.
Matthew’s comments on the fate of Jerusalem (Matthew 22:7) as a result of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed and thousands were killed, many of them crucified. The war ended in 73 A.D, with the fall Masada.
We have to allow, too, for a strong deterioration in relation between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in Antioch and elsewhere. What was happening in the political world, what was happening as Roman power constantly used brutality to enforce its will, had their effect on Jews and by those who came from paganism to follow Jesus.
What we can be sure is that Matthew’s Gospel gives us an insight into the development of the Church in the east in areas of vital theological significance. It shows a remarkable insight into the person of Jesus, into the nature of the kingdom of heaven (to use Matthew’s phrase) at the heart of the preaching and teaching of Jesus. It has much to say on how Christian life must be lived and on missionary endeavour as the supreme duty of Christian witness in the world. It has much to say on the destiny of humanity. We all realise that Matthew’s gives us the “Our Father” as our most profound prayer and the eight beatitudes as the way Christian life is to be lived. All these factors point to a date toward the end of the first century of the Christian era.
There is one vital factor that must be borne in mind when we approach the Gospel according to Matthew. I mentioned the brutality of the Roman Empire above. But more must be said. Jewish people never accepted domination by foreign powers. On the religious level they believed they were God’s people and only God’s people.
Gospel readers often make a mistake here. Jesus made a statement in response to some Pharisees who asked about paying taxes to Caesar:
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.
It was near Passover time. Jerusalem was filling up with pilgrims. Everyone was flocking to their beloved Temple to pray and to give gifts for its upkeep. The city was alive with religious fervour. It was full too of Roman soldiers, drafted in to “keep the peace”, as conquerors always describe their colonial domination when they move in to keep the lid on things by displays of brutal power.
Jesus was not naïve. He knew that every Jew who heard his words would know that no “things’ belong to Caesar. Everything belongs to God. The emperor has no clothes. The world does not belong to anyone, least of all to those who strut around it, exploiting it to enhance their own wealth and power. Creation is loaned to humanity. It is entrusted to humanity. People are meant to love people, not dominate them. Love your neighbour applies to every people and nation. There wasn’t a Jew in Jerusalem who did not know precisely what Jesus meant.
Or to put it another way, Jesus was making a highly political statement, a statement that would be endorsed by every Jew under the sun.
To understand the Gospels it is vital to grasp what was going on in the world that produced them. It is especially necessary to know what was happening in the Jewish world in the century that brought Jesus into our world and brought our four Gospels into the light of day.
It was a bad time to be born a Jew. Practically every century of Jewish history has been a bad time. The Bible is full of invasion, conquest, exploitation - all that changed was the name of the foreign powers who did the dirty. A Geordie named Calgacus who revolted against Roman occupation in the north of England justified his uprising with a famous sentence about Romans:
They create a desert and call it peace.
The century that concerns us was dominated across most of Europe and the Middle East by the Roman imperial power. It was, as is usual with such powers, coercive, exploitative, cruel, and all pervasive. What we must realise that their were resistance movements and the land that Jesus called home was deeply troubled by revolts against Rome and the retaliation that came as Rome responded with the utmost cruelty.
A brief excursion through the century Jesus was born into will help us to put our Gospels into a proper historical perspective. It was a century that deeply challenged the identity of Jews for they were constantly under threat and threats were not only to life and limb but to the distinctive religious faith which marked out Jews from other people.
The Emperor Caligula ruled from 37 to 41 A.D. A year before his death he was determined that a statue of himself be erected in the Temple in Jerusalem and that caused very open opposition and encouraged violent resistance.
People such as Pilate who exercised control over Palestine on behalf of their imperial masters generally despised Jewish religious faith. Cuspius Fadud who was, like Pilate before him, procurator (44A.D. - 46 A.D.), insisted that the vestments of the High Priest be lodged with Roman authorities. This meant that he could cancel Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement because the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies only on that day and only if he were wearing the vestments appointed to be worn on that occasion. The Day of Atonement was (and is) the Day of General Absolution. It was the day that followed ten days of prayer and fasting by all the people. On that day the sins of the nation were absolved by God but only if the Romans released the vestments of the High priest. That was one way of suppress any anti-Roman violence.
Another procurator, Julius Alexander, who came a Jewish family in Alexandria. He gave up Jewish faith and Jewish identity, becoming an important pro-Roman lackey. He ruled Judea from 46 A.D. to 48 A.D. and was much engaged in putting down rebels. We know that he crucified two men named Simon and James, because like their father, they were violent rebels against Rome rule. He fought on the Roman side at the siege of Jerusalem and was instrumental in placing Vespasian on the imperial throne. It was his son who burnt the city to the ground. You can see his victory arch in Rome beside the Coliseum.
The other name for rebels is, of course, patriots. It depends which side you are on. What is of great importance is that patriots such as Judah and his sons were defending their faith, not simply their identity as Jews - indeed, the two were the same.
The Jew Josephus (37 A. D. - 95 A.D.) was a priest, an historian, and a turncoat. His writings cover the Jewish War against Rome (66 A.D. - 73 A.D.). He records that when Cumanus was procurator (48 A.D. - 52 A.D.) a very serious riot broke out in Jerusalem and as many as 20,000 to 30,000 people were slaughtered. Josephus reports that the hills of Galilee were alive with anti-Roman rebels.
Herod Agrippa (one of that nasty half-Jewish family) in 44 A.D. executed James, the brother of John, two of the very first disciples called by Jesus as they fished the waters of Galilee (see Acts 12:2). James, “the brother of the Lord”, was executed in 62 A.D. In the list of apostles in Acts, there is Simon the Zealot, zealot being a euphemism for a rebel against Roman dictatorship. But “zealot” indicates the motif of those who take to violence.Zealots were patriots who took their patriotism to the hills in rebellion against foreign occupation. They were dedicated to everything that identified Jews as “men of God”.
There is in existence a letter written by a Jew of Alexandria named Aristeas who was commissioned to write to the High Priest in Jerusalem asking for an account of the Jewish Law (Torah) to be written in Greek and sent to Egypt to be lodged in the great library of all known books being assembled there.
The book was, we are told, commissioned by King Ptolemy II (285 B.C.- 247 B.C.). Aristeas seizes the opportunity to expand on the Jewish way of life. Particularly, he dwells on questions that concerned every Jew living under oppression. If the Jews are God’s chosen people, how are they to regard non-Jews and how are they to live among pagans. There can be co-existence but not at the expense of Jewish identity.
Aristeas identifies the purpose of Moses in giving God’s Law to God’s people. Moses, he says,
… surrounded us with palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with any other peoples in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soul, preserved from false beliefs, and worshipping only God omnipotent over all creation … .
… to prevent our being perverted by contact with others or by mixing with bad influences, he hedged us in on all sides with strict observances connected with meat and drink and touch and hearing and sight, after the manner of the Law.
Letter of Aristeas, extracted from section 139 to 141.
We cannot be certain when the letter was written. Most scholars date it somewhere around 150 B.C. This would be about the time the Maccabee family fought successfully against Greek occupation. However, the concerns to keep Jews from being contaminated by the world were alive and well in the time of Jesus, in the years when our Gospels were being written, and well beyond those violent times.
So we must see the public ministry of Jesus and evaluate his teaching in the light of what Aristeas says about contamination. We must be aware that Pharisees and Sadducees and the people who lived in Qumran were in agreement that Jews must keep themselves to themselves, that is, keep themselves totally devoted to God’s righteousness.
If the teaching of Jesus advocated that Gentiles could worship God, could be custodians of God’s righteousness, without taking on the religious lifestyle of Jews, then his views, to many Jews, were deeply heretical. Many Jews felt that they must take up arms against a sea of troubles that came with Roman domination. This they did in 66 A.D. and this led to seven years of war and utter defeat at the end of it. That disaster had an immediate effect on Christian development. Was becoming a Christian an indication that you sided with Rome? Or did the massive defeat not demand that true Jews become even more determined to be God’s people and to oppose haemorrhaging to Christianity?
To understand the Gospel of Matthew one must realise that it was written to confront all the problems that arose in Antioch when Jews and Christians sat down at the same table to eat the Bread and drink from the Cup.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 8:23-9:3
In the former time [the Lord] brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
The word of the Lord.
It is often the case that the Book of Isaiah is regarded as three independent sections reflecting three different times in the history of God’s people. The time scale covers from the final third of the 8th century B.C., when Assyrian ruled supreme in the Middle East. Then the period of the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire and the shift to Persian control of Israel after 550 B.C. changed to a more hopeful perspective. Finally, the third part of the Book of Isaiah reflects the return from exile after 537 B.C. and the struggle to rebuild the Temple and re-establish the faith of the people.
Yet recently there is a move to regarding the Book of Isaiah as a unity. While it reflects the long history of conquest, exile, and return to the land flowing with milk and honey, there is a vision of God, the Holy One of Israel, and God’s intentions that gives a unity to the whole work. What is at the heart of the whole is a vision of God who patiently seeks the welfare of the people in the midst of ever changing historical circumstances.
Today’s reading begins with a glance at history. The north of the country had suffered. The divisions of the north into Zebulun and Naphtali reflect Assyrian provincial divisions. But that foreign rule is now past history and Galilee is delivered into the hands of God:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
What we have today is a psalm of deliverance. It is a celebration of the glory of God who has rescued the people who dwelt in the darkness of foreign oppression.
The joy of the people is increased as its population grows. It is as if a new harvest of children had come and with children a new hope was born. What God gives to his people is a future.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 27:1. 4. 13-14. R/. v. 1:1
R/. The Lord is my light and my salvation.
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? R/.
One thing have I asked of the Lord
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his Temple. R/.
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord. R/.
Psalm 26 reflects that mood swing that is to be seen in our reading today from Isaiah. The psalm sings gloriously that,
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
But the song of joy begins in a place of darkest gloom:
Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off;
forsake me not, O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
but the Lord will take me in.
This is a very dark place, one of the darkest in the Bible. To be abandoned by parents, to be cast away from the most natural and assured love, that of father and mother, is abandonment that cannot be borne. There is no return from that black place, unless the Lord turns into adoptive parent and wraps the abandoned child in swaddling cloths of love:
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
The abandonment is a death, an exile from human concern of any kind. God is the only hope:
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord.
There is but one hope from the pain of such desertion:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
Sometimes the Psalms break your heart but always there is a place to hide, a save place beyond tears:
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.
God’s tent, God’s Temple, is the safe home, the place where Immanuel, God-with-Us, becomes God-with-Me.
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1:10-13. 17
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow 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 words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
The word of the Lord.
This reading from our greatest apostle, our most caring pastor, and our wisest counsellor concerns begins with a sentence that constitutes the entire meaning and intention of the whole letter.
Every sentence in this letter to communities of Christian in and around the city of Corinth is rooted in a cry from the heart: I appeal to you. Listen carefully. Paul appeals in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. His appeal is this:
… that there be no divisions among you.
If ever a voice from the past spoke passionately to our present, to our future as a Church of God, it is Paul’s appeal. For a divided Church stands under judgement and Paul points to what we must fear:
… lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Twice in a few lines Paul begs his “brothers and sisters” quickly to heal “the divisions among you”. Chole’s (business?) associates have reliably reported to Paul the mess division has created in Corinth. Paul had founded the Christian presence in Corinth and the church of Corinth quickly became one of the most important of early foundations. What had begun with such promise descended into dissension and bitter division. Such is the “quarrelling among you” that the very cross of Christ is obliterated and replaced by factions and infighting.
There is a sentence in Matthew’s Gospel that comes to mind:
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 4:12-23
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon
(who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Matthew’s Gospel everywhere quotes or otherwise refers to the Bible of the Jewish people to remind Christian Jews and Christian gentiles in Antioch were they came from. As he opens the public ministry of Jesus with the calling of the fishermen to prepare for a new catch, Matthew, quoting Isaiah, reminds his readers and hearers of the beginning of their story. It begins in God with Galilee torn apart by Assyrian conquerors, its people scattered, and God’s holy land planted with those who had no right to be there. What was left in the land of God was a desolation. But in Jesus “a light has dawned”, “a great light” has appeared, and those who had dwelt “in the shadow of death” are about to hear from God-with-Us. The words of Isaiah are about to realised in what was once “Galilee of the Gentiles”. It is about to be transformed by the gospel of God, spoken by Jesus, but lately baptised by John in the waters of the Jordan and on whom the Spirit of God had descended (Matthew 3:16). The words are important for it is in the words that “the light has dawned”:
From then on he began to preach and to say,
Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.
It is not by chance that that little phrase occurs again in Matthew’s Gospel:
From then on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Each “from then on” indicates that preparation has been done and God demands movement to ne challenges and opportunities.
The disciples who are called to leave their boats must go with Jesus to Jerusalem and see what happens there and then be sent themselves to preach to the nations.
The preacher preached...
The message of Jesus is not love. It is not love God and love your neighbour. It is not the Church. It is not a call to become a Christian. It is not to be good. In one word, it is,
In exactly the same words, Jesus repeats the message of John the Baptist (see Matthew 3:1-2). The word repent is not a call to sorrow for sin committed. It is a command to return to the prophets, to return to the God who called, saved, and destined the people of Israel to be a light to the nations.
Matthew (unlike Mark; see Mark 1:15) emphasises the command Repent by putting it first in the sentence. His Gospel sets out to reconcile Jew and Gentile, to make both aware of the give-and-take that must prevail if they are to be one Church. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to use the word “Church” (Matthew 16:18 and 18: 17).
The Jew who would be a Christian must look to the prophets of old to explore God’s intentions and to discover that to be a light to the nations means to welcome the great unwashed. It does not mean imposing all the safeguards of Jewish faith that, down through the centuries, had kept the light of faith burning and the hope for the future alive. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus welcomes Jew and Gentile. Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30) is edited very carefully by Matthew to underline for both Jewish Christians and for Gentile Christians that in Jesus a new day has dawned:
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters 'table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
The first thing Matthew emphasises is that Jesus is deep into pagan territory; he is not just in the region of Tyre but in the vicinity of Sidon as well. Secondly, he underlines the otherness of the woman. She is a Canaanite, the people who were displaced as Hebrew people took over their promised land. In other words, she belongs to the old enemy and she is a pagan. Yet she comes to Jesus with a prayer on her lips:
Son of David.
Most Christians know the Greek words here: Kyrie, eleison me. We forget the woman who first prayed them in our Gospels.
Jesus did not answer her a word. His disciples are equally unwelcoming: Send her away. By way of an explanation, Jesus adds a devastating dismissal:
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
What does the woman do? She came nearer and fell to her knees, uttering a desperate prayer:
Answering her, Jesus delivers a highly insulting judgement:
It is not right to take the childrens’ bread and throw it to dogs.
Who are the children? The Jews. And who are the dogs? The rest of the world, the Gentiles. But the woman will not let go:
yet, even the dogs eat the crumbs
that fall from their masters’ table.
And, finally, Jesus saw the light. He answered the woman and said,
great is your faith.
Be it done to you as you wish.
And her daughter was healed
at that very hour.
Consider the story from the point of view of a Jewish man or woman. They will have been delighted that Jesus is their man. He has come even to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They have the word of Jesus affirming that fact. Gentiles are dogs, and Jews have the word of Jesus on that, too. The disciples, the very people Jesus called to be fishers of men, now know that this does not include Canaanite dogs or, for that matter, any other dogs. If bread is given, it is given only into Jewish mouths. Jesus the Jew and the Jewish disciples of Jesus the Jew, know that there is no place for any but Jews in God’s design. The demon in the woman’s daughter is safe from any interference from Jesus.
But every Gentile reading or listening to the story will scream and protest. The pagan woman is the only one in the story who knows who Jesus is. He is Lord, and Lord of mercy. She knows that God has sent him to mercy more than the people of Israel. Gentiles will point out that the woman prays with profound faith. Three times! Three times she calls Lord, Kyrios. She falls to her knees in worship and begs her Lord to help her. At last the penny drops and Jesus acknowledges the woman’s faith and heals her daughter. Gentile readers can claim a place at God’s table, assured that they will be fed with more than crumbs.
This story plays into the prejudices of the Jewish Christians who claim Jesus as exclusively theirs. Equally, it has the woman demanding a place for non-Jews and that Gentiles are not outside the pale of divine mercy. If Jesus has come to heal divisions in humanity’s fractured world, then daughters are healed.
In the business of repenting, both Jew and Gentile will have to face their prejudices and come to a new understanding of the God who is Father of all. If there is to be peace in the churches of Antioch, then both sides must compromise and try to see the hand of God in both their stories. The kingdom of heaven must come to earth, not just to a bit of it. The will of God is not to be done on earth by a select few. All the nations must be baptised in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus is not God-with-Us, the few. He is with all, even to the end of the age.
Those fishermen called by the Sea of Galilee will be called disciples in Matthew 5:1. Jesus proposes “to make you fishers of men”. Notice that they cease to be self-made; they are made by Jesus. That is to say they are apprentices. The word “disciple” means an apprentice, a pupil, a learner. Twice in the story the word “called” implies that these people are chosen to be moulded into the Jesus enterprise. The number will grow as this Gospel makes its way to Jerusalem and to a place called Golgotha (Matthew 27:33). By the end of the story there will be only eleven of them left, and some of those doubted (Matthew 28:17). But Jesus didn’t give up on them.
Dr Joseph O’Hanlon.