Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Sunday Reflection by Fr John Horan SDB

Gospel reading: Matthew 4:12-23

Today’s Gospel passage is from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Leaving Nazareth, and his home and family, he sets out anonymously. The world which accepts him receives the salvation which it longs for. By settling in Capernaum, a city of fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus fulfils an ancient prophecy. His presence will bring light into the lives of those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death. A new light, a ray of hope, rises in the place where Jesus is, regardless of how backward or insignificant it may be. The promise is fulfilled, both then and now. To cease walking among the shadows and to enjoy the promise of salvation, we must turn and listen to the good news of the kingdom of God, and accept the invitation of Jesus to share his life and his mission. In this way will it come about that the people of God will see a great light, and experience again the nearness of God and feel summoned by him.

12 When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles  – 16  the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 18 As he walked 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. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 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. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23  And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.

I. Read: understand what the text says, concentrating on how it says it.

The passage is an account of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. It is in three parts which differ in length and importance. The first (4,13-16) sees the fulfilment of a prophecy of Isaiah with the presence of Jesus in Galilee  (Is 9,1). The second (4,17) relates the first act of Jesus, his announcement that the kingdom of God is near.  The third (4,18-22) narrates in detail the beginning of discipleship. The text is marked by two details: Jesus appears after the imprisonment of John the Baptist (4,12). Their ministry does not overlap and their message does not coincide.  Jesus appears, teaching and healing the people wherever they are.  Anyone who proclaims the God who is to come must first go to where the people are, the people who are to receive God.

The order in which the facts are narrated is decisive in understanding the writer’s thought. Only by his presence, going around Galilee, from Nazareth to Capernaum, does Jesus fill  with light the land that dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death, and so fulfil what was foretold of the Messiah. The first thing Jesus, the Christ, does, by his very presence, is to bring light into our lives.

The purpose of his coming is to proclaim the Gospel. Matthew gives us a summary, the heart of the message that Jesus the Messiah will preach. The conversion that he urges is an absolute imperative that admits of no excuse, and it has only one motive.  The sovereign God has taken a decision to come. If the king is already on the way, there is no alternative but to look to him.

While he was proclaiming this ‘gospel’ (note that the ‘good news’ consists in conversion of life!) Jesus walks by and sees two pairs of brothers intent on their work as fishermen. The first two were busy actually fishing, the second pair had finished fishing and were repairing their nets. The story as it is told does not satisfy the reader’s curiosity, nor does it seem very likely – he is passing by, sees men who are very busy at their work and with their family, and does not invite, but orders them, to follow him!

With the two pairs of brothers following him, scarcely released from their manual work and their families, Jesus preaches conversion and the news that God is close at hand. Now he can teach in the synagogues, evangelize and heal the people. When Jesus, accompanied by his disciples, sets about evangelizing and healing the people, they are filled with the light brought by the presence of the Messiah they have been waiting for. Wherever Jesus comes, the light and the good news come, and following him is possible because he demands it.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to your life. 

The evangelist is narrating the historical beginning of the ministry of Jesus. The preaching of the kingdom which is to come, and the vocation of these two sets of brothers, were what occupied Jesus before the world knew his presence and benefitted from his powers.

For centuries the people who lived in Galilee had known oppression by pagan powers and the contempt of their compatriots. Jesus chose to appear among them and to make his home there. This decision will accompany him all his life.  He will be known as a Galilean and he will not be taken seriously for that very reason. But that does not matter to him. By settling in Galilee, Jesus begins to fulfil his promise.  He becomes a fellow citizen with people leading a life that is insignificant, without much future and with few lights. He opens his public ministry by choosing to become a fellow citizen of people who are despised, people who are not taken seriously, people who feel themselves looked down upon, unloved and unaccepted. And he explains that it is for them he begins the preaching of the kingdom. The God preached by Jesus begins by being sovereign there where there are few hopes, in a place that is valued very little.

He has done it once and is willing to repeat it for us. He will appear in our lives as the light that has been missing, provided we acknowledge that we need his light and his presence. For us too Jesus can be light, source of life and warmth, ability to discern and to clarify problems, a new way of seeing people and things, support in life’s journey and assurance that we will discover life’s end. But we must be more conscious of our need for him. People who know that they are walking in darkness desire the light. Only those who experience problems feel the need of clarification. For Jesus to become the light which is missing in our lives, we need to know the darkness in which we live. And to leave behind the darkness which obscures our existence, we need to turn to Jesus. If we are converted to his truth, and if we see the people and things in our life in his light, then we will be changed into people who are enlightened, whose existence shines out and attracts attention.

It is not enough that Jesus decides to live among us. It is necessary, as it was for the inhabitants of Galilee, his first people among whom he lived, that we accept his warning:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” It is significant that the first words that Jesus spoke to his fellow citizens demanded a radical change in their behaviour. Jesus could not be light and life for them if they did not understand their lives in the light of Jesus and if they did not put their hopes of salvation solely in him. Conversion means nothing other than putting one’s life under God’s gaze, seeing it – and wanting it to be – in the light of his demands. If someone is unaware of his blindness, he has no desire for sight. There is no longing for light if one lives always in darkness. It is difficult for someone to feel the absence of God if he is satisfied with himself.

God’s coming near to us will be of little benefit is we do not notice it. Knowing that Christ is our light is of no help to us if we do not allow him to shed light on our existence. God and his kingdom draw near to those who determine to live life, to understand it and programme it, in the light of Christ.  Unless we put Christ at the centre of our lives, basing our plans and our hopes on him, drawing  strength from him in our weaknesses and failures, we will never be transformed into what he wants us to be – his companions in life and sharers in his mission.

In order to see God in the world and see ourselves in the world in the light of God, we must live according to his will and immediately adopt his way of life as our own. The first thing Jesus did, after announcing the nearness of God and calling for a change of lifestyle, was to invite some fishermen, whom he found busy at their work, to accompany him in his mission. They had to leave all they had in hand, their work and their nets, and let go of all that was in their minds and hearts, their spouses and families, and make the following of Jesus their only concern. It is probable that for us Jesus is not yet the light which enlightens our lives, because we are not yet ready for it. God has not drawn close to our lives, because we are not following Jesus closely. It is only when we become companions of Jesus that we experience the closeness of God. Only the person who puts God above everything else, lives as a subject of his kingdom. If Jesus is to be the light of our lives, we must follow him closely, make a radical choice for him, and make his companionship the purpose of our lives.

If Jesus does not have faithful followers in us, our world will not have credible witnesses. Christ does not succeed in becoming the light of the world in which we live, and God has ceased to be relevant to the people among whom we live, because they are deprived of our light, the resplendent example of lives of sincere discipleship.To convince the world that God wants to be close to it, to bear witness to men that Christ is their companion on the journey, we must first draw near to God and live in the company of Jesus. There is no lack of ‘good’ Christians today, disciples of good will and good desires, but there continues to be a shortage of generous Christians who are ready to leave all the things that preoccupy them, the projects they dream of or the things they have already achieved, to let God and his plans become the goal of their lives and their motive and reason for living.

For Jesus to become present among us again, and emerge from his anonymity, and enlighten our existence, as he did in Galilee, we need believers who are determined to make him the centre of their lives, the reason for their existence and the cause of their hope, and to become the light which enlightens the lives of others and offers them a reason for hope. The prophecy will continue to be realized today if Christ finds us ready to be converted and to become forever his disciples. Our contemporaries, like those of Jesus, are in need of believers who radiate faith and bear witness as disciples who follow Jesus. Why not be among them?  Why not commit ourselves to be followers of Jesus?