Lectionary Commentaries for January 27, 2008
Third Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

Audrey West

In its narrative context, this pericope reveals a number of things about the person and ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

1. Jesus’ ministry is aligned with God’s purpose as it is revealed in the Scriptures.

After John’s arrest, Jesus leaves the Judean wilderness (where he had been tempted by the devil, Matthew 4:1-11) and settles in Capernaum, “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” (Matthew 4:13). This is one of more than a dozen formula citations in Matthew that signal to the reader that Jesus’ ministry stands in line with God’s purpose as revealed through the Old Testament prophets (see, e.g., Mathew 1:22-23; 2:17-18; 8:17; 12:17-21, etc.). It is not so much that a long-ago prophecy has now come true (although that is certainly one of the functions of prophecy in Matthew; e.g., 1:23), but rather that Jesus’ return to Galilee is “filled with meaning,”  especially for the people “who sat in darkness” (Matthew 4:16). Jesus’ departure from the Judean wilderness to his “home” in Capernaum represents the dawning of a new day as he proclaims the coming of God’s realm (the “kingdom of the heavens” in Matthew.)

2. When Jesus’ ministry is threatened, he sometimes withdraws from the threat to a place of relative safety.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew (an-akh-o-reh’-o, Matthew 4:12) to Galilee.” The verb an-akh-o-reh’-o is typically used in Matthew when there is movement from one place to another in the face of threatening circumstances. For example, after following the star to Bethlehem, the magi left (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 2:12) for their own country by a different route, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Jesus’ parents went into Egypt (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 2:14) after the angel warned them to flee, and they went away to Galilee (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 2:22) upon their return after a similar such warning. Jesus departed from the synagogue (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 12:15) after becoming aware of a threat against him by the Pharisees. Later, after hearing that John has been killed, Jesus departed to a deserted place (an-akh-o-reh’-o,14:13) to be alone. Thus, the pericope’s opening verse is not simply a way to mark time, but it signals that John’s arrest is a dangerous situation for Jesus, and he must choose how to respond. There will come a time, later, to face such threats head-on (particularly when Jesus goes to Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion), but for now Jesus pulls away in order to carry out his ministry of proclamation in and around Galilee.

3. Jesus’ light is manifested among his followers.

Unlike the Gospel of John, Matthew does not identify Jesus as the light of the world. Nonetheless, the prophecy from Isaiah makes clear that Jesus’ return to Galilee will be the occasion for those who sit in darkness to see “a great light” (Matthew 4:16-17). No doubt Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing is the basis for that light. At the same time, however, as the gospel narrative proceeds, readers learn that it is the followers of Jesus who bear his light in the world by their own (collective) way of life. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the people, “You (plural) are the light of the world,. . . Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus’ proclamation that the realm (kingdom) of heaven has come near is the first flicker of a light that will grow and burn among his followers until they are able to “proclaim [it] from the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).

4. Jesus calls people as they are, from where they are, being who they are.

As Jesus walks beside the water, the soon-to-be-disciples are engaged in their everyday jobs: earning a living for themselves and their families by fishing in the Sea of Galilee. They are probably at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder; their work is dirty and physically challenging, and it demands their attention from sunup to sundown. Jesus does not seem to be bothered by their grimy fingernails, their wet and dirty clothing, not even by their low social status or lack of political power. The One with the kingly pedigree (see the birth narrative) does not demand that they shower up before joining his mission, nor does he ask questions about their education, their abilities, nor their availability for an extended time away from home.

To Simon and Andrew, Jesus promises to expand their skills: these men who cast nets for fish will one day catch people, instead. As for the sons of Zebedee, James and John, they receive only a call: no hints about what follows, no details about the mission, no promises of success. Remarkably, all four of these people, just as they are, follow after this stranger who interrupts their daily routine. All that is asked of them at this point is simply that they follow: as they are, from where they are, being who they are. As is true for the followers of Jesus who come after them, the meaning of their choice will unfold only over time.

5. God’s call invites and empowers choices.

Jesus might have preferred to stay in the Judean wilderness, where “the angels came and waited on him” (Matthew 4:11). When the news comes to him about John’s arrest, he makes a different choice, however, by withdrawing to Galilee, where he calls his first disciples, preaches the Sermon on the Mount, begins his ministry of healing, and teaches what it means to be the Messiah who is “God with us.” Those first disciples, for their part, might have preferred to keep their jobs, to remain with their families, to stay with the life that they knew. When they see Jesus and hear his words to them, they make a different choice, however; they take a risk, step out in faith, leave behind that which is comfortable and secure. They choose to follow Jesus.

1 See the discussion of these two uses of prophecy in Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 82-83.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:1-4

Frank M. Yamada

Epiphany is a season that celebrates God’s manifestation in the world through the person of Jesus Christ. When the divine becomes manifest in the world, then strange and marvelous things happen.

In the Old Testament, the people of God experience these divine in-breakings in many ways. In some cases, the divine is described as a natural disturbance or a violent storm. The stories about Mount Sinai, for example, depict the Lord making a covenant with Israel in the midst of thunder and lightning (Exodus 20:18). However, in another biblical tradition, God comes to Elijah in the presence of a profound silence (1 Kings 19:12). In whatever form, these experiences of the divine usually represent a disruption of the present order, as God’s purpose becomes revealed in the created realm. In Isaiah 9:1–4, God’s manifestation is experienced as a radical reversal. The prophet uses images of light and darkness to characterize a contrast–a dramatic change in the fortunes of the people of God. A light has shined upon a people who once dwelled in darkness.

Isaiah 9:1–4 is part of a larger unit that extends to 9:7. Verses 6–7, which are excluded from today’s lectionary passage, include the birth proclamation of a great king who will establish justice in the land. These final verses provide the climax to the prophetic oracle and emphasize the hope of the people in this coming leader. Without the concluding lines, Isaiah 9:1–4 emphasizes the radical reversal that Israel will experience. Thus, the passage focuses our attention not on the promised child in vv. 6–7 but on the Lord’s deliverance and how that deliverance produces a changed condition for the people of God. In its present form, the structure of this text has two parts. Verses 1–2 describe the radical shift for the people’s situation through the contrast of darkness and light. Verses 3–4 emphasize how the Lord’s work has produced joy for the people since the Lord has delivered them from the hands of their oppressor.

The first section of this passage, vv. 1–2, summarizes the radical reversal that the people experience. The historical setting of Isaiah 9 is Assyrian occupation. By the last third of the eighth century B.C.E., the empire of Assyria subdued much of the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophet Isaiah recognizes this reality, describing the people’s initial situation as one of “anguish,” when the Lord “brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” Both of these tribes are associated with the northern region of Galilee as the last part of this verse suggests. The prophet declares, however, that this oppressive situation for the north will be transformed as the Lord makes this “way of the sea” glorious. The harsh realities of a life lived under an oppressive regime will be broken as the Lord intervenes.

In v. 2, the drastic change summarized in the previous verse finds expression through the images of light and darkness. Light is a metaphor that is often used in the Old Testament and the ancient Near East to describe the rule of a righteous king. Justice and divine protection are characteristics of such a reign. The prophet declares that this people who were once in darkness will see a great light. (The oppressive rule of Assyria will be Isaiah 9:7). The idea of light overcoming darkness was a prominent theme in the previous weeks of Advent. In that season and in this text, this radical transformation signals the in-breaking of God’s reign, a divine rule that signals both the end of an oppressive rule and deliverance for the people of God.

Verses 3–4 describe the effects of the Lord’s reversal upon the people. The Lord causes them to multiply and flourish, increasing their joy. The prophet uses two images of abundance at the end of verse 3 to describe the people’s response to the Lord’s work of deliverance. The first image likens the people’s reaction to the joy experienced at the end of the harvest. The second evokes images of victory at the end of war as the people rejoice in the collecting of spoils from the battle. Both images reflect abundance and joy, which are contrasted with the descriptions of their initial state of darkness and anguish under Assyrian rule.

The prophet extends the theme of battle in v. 4, evoking ideas of holy war. Isaiah brings the tradition of Midian to the mind of his audience. In this story, found in Judges 6–8, Gideon defeats the Midianites with only a small band of men. In holy war ideology, the Lord is portrayed as a divine warrior who fights on behalf of Israel. The people are not responsible on their own to accomplish the victory, but the battle belongs to the Lord. Thus, the Lord breaks the yoke of bondage that is upon Israel, overturning the social order. The tyranny of oppressor is defeated as God delivers God’s people from their humiliated state. In these last two verses, the people experience the Lord’s reversal as an inversion of the present order. This is great news for those who live in oppression but bad news for the empire.

The images of holy war are thick in this passage and may cause some to shy away from preaching on this text. However, one must remember the context of Israel’s political life. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were small vassal states within Assyria’s vast empire. In this context, the theology of holy war represents the idea that God sides with the underprivileged and oppressed–the proverbial underdog. When tyranny is present in the existing order, the Lord’s in-breaking presence becomes manifest in the overturning of unjust social structures. Those who once dwelled in anguish will experience the joy of God’s abundance. Darkness gives way to light.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Dwight Peterson

Most of us who have been around churches for any amount of time know that Christians can get on one another’s nerves.

At times such tension might seem harmless; but more often than not, tensions in a local church can be quite harmful, both to the people involved and to the gospel. I heard a story once about a church that had two different groups who each “owned” a locking (and locked) cabinet in the church basement with their own tableware and cutlery, which each group refused to share with the other.

The pastor who told me this story had served that church early in his ministry. When he visited that church decades later, he said, the cabinets were still locked, and the fractures within the community had yet to be healed. What is interesting to me about this story is how practical (i.e., non-theological) the divisions at that church were. The divisions were the result of personal antipathy, and showed themselves in the availability (or not) of plates, knives and forks at church functions.

This kind of “silly” division in a church is really not silly at all. Divisions like this make it difficult for the community actually to be a community. Worship, Christian formation, fellowship, works of kindness and mercy–all these and more are compromised, and even made impossible, by division.

The passage for today is about division at the church in Corinth. Paul begins the passage by urging unity in the church. Even in translation, 1 Corinthians 1:10 makes the point starkly: Paul appeals to them to be in agreement, for there not to be divisions, and for them to be knit together in the “same mind” and with the “same purpose.” The Greek text is even clearer, as the words translated be in agreement” in the NRSV might more literally be translated “say the same thing”–the Greek text has three “sames” in one verse.

Paul follows this injunction to unity by noting the source of his knowledge of divisions at Corinth: he had heard about the quarrels at Corinth from “Chloe’s people.” While we don’t know Chloe from anywhere else in Scripture, it appears that she was a woman of some status who was the head of a household. Some of the people in her household seem to have traveled to Ephesus, where Paul was when he wrote 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:8), and given him the news of quarreling at Corinth.

In Paul’s telling, those quarrels seem to have been at least partially about allegiance to various people–Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ (1:12). It’s probably best not to imagine just four competing groups in Corinth. After all, 1 Corinthians shows that the church in Corinth could find all sorts of reasons to disagree with one another! The point to be made here is that Paul will have no part in dissension related to allegiance to human leaders–and especially to himself–in the church. “Has Christ been divided? Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? You were not baptized in the name of Paul, were you?”  Division in the church, then, isn’t merely a matter of people not getting along together. It presents a theological challenge, in that it divides Christ and threatens our ability to bear witness to the significance of Christ’s death on our behalf.

His claim to have baptized very few people in Corinth (1:14) poses a potential problem for Paul. At first it looks as if he’s saying he baptized only Crispus and Gaius (which is good, because there is little chance that people can claim to have been baptized in Paul’s name rather than in Jesus’ name). Then, it seems, he remembers having baptized more people–the household of Stephanus (which might have amounted to a large group of people), and perhaps others…but he doesn’t remember. While this failure of memory on Paul’s part can come across as funny, there is probably more going on here. By handling baptisms he has performed so lightly–he admits to having baptized some people, but truth to tell can’t really remember who and how many–Paul rhetorically enacts what he is trying to help the Corinthians to understand. The important things are the gospel of Jesus Christ and the cross (i.e., death) of Jesus Christ. Things like who baptized whom (1:14-16) are beside the point.

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul returns to the problem of the presence of divisions in the church. For example, he laments that the Lord’s Supper, the meal that is supposed to emphasize the unity of the church, has been turned into a showcase for disunity, probably around socio-economic lines (11:17-22). When the church participates in the Eucharist, they eat from a single loaf of bread, a participation that signifies their unity (10:17). But their practice of the Eucharist manages to demonstrate their divisions instead. Still later in the letter, Paul paints his famous picture of the church as the body of Christ (12:12-31), which emphasizes that all the different parts of the church must work together and mutually honor each other if the body is to be healthy. Parts of the body work with each other for the good of the whole. Discord, or division, is not healthy for a body, and it’s not healthy for the church at Corinth, either (12:25).

Unity, of course, does not mean uniformity. But it does mean that the church ought not allow itself to be divided by things like human leaders (or, for that matter, flatware), but instead ought to keep the Gospel and the power of the cross of Christ firmly in view. It is to the power of the word of the cross that Paul turns in the next section of the epistle (1:18-25).

Earlier in my remarks, I noted how practical…and “non-theological”…divisions within churches often are. While I think Paul might agree about the word “practical,” I suspect he would have disagreed that any division in the church is “non-theological.” Something he does throughout 1 Corinthians is argue that the practical stuff of community life ought to be shaped by the Gospel of Christ, by Christ’s actions on our behalf. If we can learn from Paul how to frame the practicalities of our common life with the Gospel, we will have learned something very important.