It’s not as simple as it seems

Epiphany 3. 2011

Matthew 4:12-25

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

Today’s gospel consists of what appear to be three distinct episodes. First of all, we are told that Jesus departs to Galilee in accordance with prophecy and it is here that he begins his ministry: the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom.  Then there is the account of the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John. Lastly, Jesus begins teaching and preaching in earnest  – though we do not hear the content until the succeeding section of the gospel. In this way, the th author of Matthew’s skillfully creates a bridge between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and his public ministry.

John’s imprisonment sets the scene. It signals the end of John’s ministry and opens the way for that of Jesus. Jesus returns to Galilee where the majority of his ministry will take place – in the country not in the centre of Judaism in Jerusalem.  Galilee is the central character of these few verses – Jesus comes back to Galilee, finds his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee and crowds flock to him from Galilee.  The majority of Jesus’ ministry is carried out in Galilee, which, for Matthew, is the fulfillment of prophecy.

The prophecy serves a secondary purpose for the author of the gospel in that “Galilee of the Gentiles” alludes to the future of the movement that follows Jesus and which will include those who are not Jews – this, despite Jesus’ injunction that the disciples go only to the lost sheep of Israel. Galilee was not in fact, a Gentile region any more than the cosmopolitan Jerusalem, but Matthew uses the prophecy to open the door to the future mission to the Gentiles. In fact, the whole of Jesus’ ministry is framed both by Jesus’ presence in Galilee and the inclusion of the Gentiles, for in Matthew 28, before his ascension into heaven, Jesus’ commissions his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations”. In the meantime, during Jesus’ life, the priority is Israel.

Having established the scene, Matthew moves on to Jesus’ ministry. His first step is to choose disciples. In terms of Jewish tradition this is an extraordinary turn of events – it is customary for disciples choose their master and not the other way around. It is equally unusual for a teacher to share his role with those whom he teachers. But, as we know, Jesus is no ordinary teacher and he will choose his own disciples – people to share with him the ministry to which he has been commissioned.

Walking by the Sea, Jesus comes across two sets of brothers. Andrew and Simon (who is identified as the Peter whom the listeners know) and then James and John abandon their livelihoods and their responsibilities in order to follow Jesus. Andrew and Simon do not even bring in their nets, let alone bring them to shore to be cleaned. James and John leave their earthly father and follow Jesus.

In this very bald and simple way, Matthew reveals two aspects of discipleship.  1. Those who follow Jesus will fish for people – gather those who believe into the faith. 2. For followers of Jesus, family relationships will be changed and re-defined as following Jesus takes priority in their lives. (It is possible that here too there is an allusion to the break with the synagogue that has taken place by the time of Matthew’s writing. Following Jesus has meant being excluded from the practice of the faith of their fathers.)

In the final verses of today’s gospel, Matthew introduces the theme of the following section: Jesus’ teaching and preaching – though in fact here, we learn more about Jesus’ healing ministry and of the crowds which are drawn to Jesus as a result.  These are the crowds who will form the audience for Jesus’ teaching

which begins in earnest in the Sermon on the Mount. The proclamation of the kingdom with which this section began is central to Jesus’ teaching. “He went throughout Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (The exact same language is used to conclude this section and to introduce the commissioning of the disciples at the end of chapter 9.)

The author of Matthew’s gospel achieves a great deal in these eleven verses. He establishes the break between Jesus and John while at the same time indicating their common fate – just as John was handed over, so too will Jesus be handed over. He provides a justification for Jesus’ ministry being largely confined to Galilee and opens a door for the mission to the Gentiles.  The content of Jesus’ preaching is made known and Matthew alludes to the charismatic power of Jesus which can induce complete strangers to abandon everything and follow him. Something of the nature of discipleship is revealed and finally Matthew provides the platform for Jesus’ first discourse – known to us as the Sermon on the Mount.

In a culture in which few could read for themselves, the gospels were written to be read aloud and publicly. For that reason, the authors employed a variety of techniques to ensure that their message would get through. They constructed their accounts in such a way as to gain maximum retention and understanding by those who were listening.  Scripture is used directly and indirectly, material is gathered together in order to have the greatest impact, patterns are employed to assist the hearer to remember, themes are developed and repeated and so on.

When we read or listen to scripture we should bear in mind that the author’s intention is not simply to tell a story, or to produce an account of Jesus’ life that is 100% historically accurate. The author’s intention was to write in such a way as to bring about faith and to challenge the listeners to respond to Jesus as did the early disciples.

That the few verses of today’s gospel can contain so much detail should be a reminder to us that while our gospels can be taken at face value, they are also full of subtle allusions and complexities the knowledge of which can deepen and enrich our understanding of our faith. The depth of meaning in this small section of the gospel is a warning to us not to reduce our faith to simple stories and equally simple formula, but to retain an open mind to all the possibilities that a text might include. If ever we think that we know all that there is to know, not only have we stopped growing, we have also closed our minds to future revelation and shut ourselves off from the presence of God who is ultimately beyond our understanding.

The story of Jesus is more than can be contained in any number of books, and has a meaning deeper than any number of words can express yet we can, like the disciples, be drawn into his presence, be compelled to follow at his command and commissioned to minister in his name. Let us pray for that openness of heart and mind that enables us to be ready to respond to his call and for that sense of expectancy which allows us recognise his presence in our lives.



%d bloggers like this: