Sunday reflection: Matthew 4:12-23

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular Green Room feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion

Today’s gospel reading is 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.

Today’s Gospel puts us at the start of the public ministry of Jesus. In the passages of Matthew preceding today’s reading, John had baptized Jesus and recognized that He was the One for whom John had prepared the people. Jesus left for his test in the desert, and John had been arrested. When Jesus had triumphed over Satan — by rejecting the three temptations that had caused Adam and the Israelites to fall — Jesus returns just as John leaves the stage.

This is not the only completion/transition in today’s readings. The entry of Jesus into Zebulun and Naphtali is foreshadowed in our Old Testament reading today, Isaiah 8:23-9:3. “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,” the prophet instructed, “but in the end he has glorified the seaward road.” The end is Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, who works immediately to build his kingdom in the formerly degraded land by shining his light and gathering workers for the kingdom — fishers of men.

Note the parallel between the degraded land as the place of ultimate glory, and the humble men chosen to build the kingdom. Why does Jesus not choose scholars steeped in the Word for his first disciples? Jesus could have chosen those whose authority was already recognized in order to make a bigger impression, but instead He seemingly chooses the first few people He sees to become the backbone of the Church. Why? He comes to lift up the lowly, as he will make clear in the Beatitudes shortly afterward. He was himself born in the most meager of circumstances, showing His care for the poor.

These men, living off of the land, had little room for anything other than their livelihoods. A day or two off from their work besides the Sabbath could mean hardship for themselves and their families. Wealthier men could possibly afford to walk away from their daily cares to follow an itinerant preacher, out of curiosity or amusement, but those luxuries were not available to fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. And yet, when Jesus beckons them, Peter and Andrew, and then James and John drop what they are doing without any provision for the future to follow the call of salvation. Not only did they risk their own well-being, but that of their families; Peter was married, and James and John worked for their father. The witness of their obedience to Jesus’ ministry and message — the Gospel — is all the more dramatic and awe-inspiring.

And what is His message and ministry? A call to repentance, and healing afterward. In the very next verse, Matthew teaches that Jesus and his disciples went all through Galilee — the formerly “degraded” land — “preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and infirmity among the people.” Naphtali and Zebulun had been invaded and corrupted by Assyrians, just as humanity had been infected by sin. Jesus would heal the sick and infirm to demonstrate the healing power of God’s love and its triumph over sin, and would use these humble men to show how God’s love — and God’s authority rather than their own — would provide salvation for all, and not just the wealthy and powerful. In doing so, the formerly degraded land would end up being the road to Heaven.

That obedience and humble acceptance as apostles continued afterward. In our second reading today, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17, Paul scolds the emerging church in Corinth for dividing into factions.

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?

The obedience and humility of the first apostles were meant to teach us not just that we have to embrace the Gospel, but also recognize that ultimate authority and salvation in full derives from Jesus Christ. Paul and the other apostles were given the leadership of the Church on Earth, but the apostles are never greater than Christ. On the other hand, by embracing Christ as Savior, no man is in the end higher or lower than another in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul’s writings to the churches in Scripture emphasize this — subtly at times, when he greets all with “brothers and sisters” to show equality in the kingdom, and more directly at times when he scolds the Corinthians for turning the “love feast” of the Eucharist into another opportunity to stratify people into classes.

The message of Christ is clear. Repent, and even the lowly — including those who must spend almost all of their time finding food and shelter — will have an equal share and equal standing in salvation. Instead of striving for false authority, we need to recognize our own sinfulness and equality in the lowly status of humanity, and then seek to lift our brothers and sisters to salvation as well.

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