Third Sunday after Epiphany

For the third time in Matthew, Jesus finds himself embracing a new hometown.

January 23, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

For the third time in Matthew, Jesus finds himself embracing a new hometown.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In doing so, prophecy was fulfilled (2:5-6).

The first move finds the family fleeing Bethlehem and Herod’s furor and arriving in Egypt.  In doing so, Jesus’ life emulates Moses’ journeys. 

The second move allows the family to return to Israel after Herod’s demise.  However, the reign of his progeny leads the family to resettle in Nazareth.  In doing so, prophecy was fulfilled (2:23).

A third move brings Jesus to Capernaum.  In doing so, prophecy was fulfilled (4:14-16).

In other words, never are these moves rooted in human will.  Instead, Matthew argues, God has carefully orchestrated these geographical dislocations and thus imbued them with great significance.  What is that significance?

Perhaps here we get a glimpse of Jesus’ peripatetic existence.  From his earliest days through his adult life and ministry, Matthew’s Jesus is an itinerant preacher, a constant wanderer.  Jesus does not opt for the comforts of the familiar but embraces God’s call to find those who are in need of a word of God wherever they might live.

After all, this is the message of the prophecy.  God has promised to reach all the nations.  Light has reached those who formerly dwelled in darkness and death.  Jesus has come to them and, in a sense, become one of them by becoming their neighbor.  Moreover, Jesus’ first ministry locale is known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  Thus, from the first and in consonance with prophetic promise, Jesus ministers in an ethnically diverse land.

In an ever more mobile and diverse culture, Jesus’ moves are in some sense familiar to many of us.  The dislocation of a new place and new neighbors can be both thrilling and intimidating.  New surroundings can provide us a new start, a nearly blank slate that might allow us to recreate how others perceive and how we perceive ourselves.  New surroundings also can cause us to question every dimension of our selves.  Moving causes us to ask anew, “Who am I?”  The richness of diverse communities can help us understand others better but also ourselves.  In Matthew, Jesus’ peripatetic experiences must have shaped his perspective, helping him understand a community as both insider and outsider. 

In Capernaum, Jesus picks up the proclamation of John.  John’s arrest in 4:12 marks a critical transition but not an entirely new path.  The basic proclamation of both is identical: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2 and 4:17).  Later (10:7), Jesus will send his disciples to preach the same message.  At the same time, John himself promised that Jesus would be a more powerful and important figure in this story.  What is the shape of this reign of God?  How is Jesus uniquely bringing it about?

The power of Jesus’ call becomes quickly evident.  The call of his first followers is profoundly inspired.  Jesus doesn’t have to pitch the idea to these individuals nor does he need to persuade them.  After all, each has little reason to leave their current way of life.  Each seemingly has a steady job and, more importantly, familial ties to their vocations as is emphasized in both call narratives.

At the same time, these are unlikely to be individuals of great social power or individual wealth.  These fishers are not among the elite of ancient culture.  Though Jesus’ disciples will play a vital function in the earliest days of the church, on this day they are utterly ordinary individuals called to an extraordinary task.  I imagine that they would not have completely understood what it would mean to become fishers of people at the moment, yet they follow without hesitation.  Many came to John seeking his baptism; here Jesus calls a small cadre to follow his itinerant path of preaching and healing.

Having begun to assemble his disciples, Jesus turns to his work.  He teaches in the synagogues.  He pronounces “the good news of the kingdom.”  He makes the sick and infirmed whole.  These will be the defining characteristics of Jesus’ daily labors in Matthew.  Teaching, proclaiming the kingdom, and healing are integrated components of his ministry, not discrete pieces. 

“Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Spoken nearly two millennia ago, how does this promise now function for us today?  Is the kingdom of heaven still drawing near even today?  It is vital to observe the close connection of preaching, teaching, and healing in Jesus’ ministry.  The proclamation of the kingdom is not solely verbal, not just a teaching but a series of actions designed to bring wholeness to individuals and communities. 

The reign of God has dawned not only because Jesus spoke it into existence but also because he was willing to heal the sick and make whole the broken.  Thus, it is not a point of embarrassment for us that Jesus proclaimed the dawning of God’s direct rule over the world so very long ago, for he believed deeply and enacted powerfully God’s reshaping of the world. 

Two millennia hence, we too can announce that the kingdom has arisen.  The work of proclamation, teaching, and healing that Jesus inaugurates in this ethnic hotbed called Galilee has continued throughout the centuries.  In fact, Jesus’ closing word in Matthew commands the continuation of this life-giving work. 

How then are we to proclaim today, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”?  Unfortunately, for many people today, such utterance is characteristic of the wild-eyed preacher who has lost contact with reality.  Perhaps, these few verses proclaimed this Sunday can help remind us of Jesus’ life-giving words and deeds.  Perhaps, these few verses proclaimed this Sunday can help remind us to proclaim the drawing near of God’s reign not as a threat but a life-giving promise.