This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the one act of Jesus’s ministry before he begins his preaching, with the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew has given us two chapters on the infancy of Jesus, one chapter about John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus, and half a chapter about the temptation of the wilderness. Then, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
Here we have a great play on words. In English, he tells the “fishermen,” “I will make you fishers of men.” That’s nice, and I don’t want to take it away from you.
But in the Greek original, the word play is different. The word for fisherman says nothing about fish or about men. The word is “salty”: a fisherman is a man of the sea. He is calling them to go out to the seas of the world.
(The Hebrew word for fishermen is about fish, not seas. But it’s a rare word in Hebrew, because Hebrews aren’t fishermen.)
There’s quite a lot in our readings about seas. Our prophecy from Isaiah, from which our Gospel will quote, says, “he has glorified the seaward road,” adding another water theme, “the land west of the Jordan.” Our Gospel begins, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,” whom he had met in the waters of the Jordan,” he . . . went to live in Capernaum by the sea.” Then it quotes Isaiah. Then we find Peter and Andrew, “casting a net into the sea; they were” fishermen? Men of the sea, salties. “I will make you salties of men.” James and John were in a boat.
Strangest, though, is that business about Zebulun and Naphtali. Why on earth begin Jesus’s public ministry with a double reference to this part of Isaiah? “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light” is obviously good stuff. But Matthew starts by quoting Isaiah on “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea.”
It helps to understand a little geography. Here’s a map.
The Mediterranean Sea is to the left. Israel is the bottom two thirds of the yellow part, by the sea. Babylon is the green part to the right. But when the Old Testament prophets talk about the invaders who would take them away to the Babylonian Exile, they speak not of “the East” but of “the North.” You can see the reason on the map. To the east of Israel is an empty desert. The roads to Babylon are through the rivers and populated lands to the north, in a great “crescent” path.
Jerusalem, and Judea, where Jesus found John baptizing, are in the South, and they were the last to be invaded. But Galilee—our Gospel calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles”—is in the North of Israel, the first part to be invaded, and the place of contact with the foreigners. The sea of Galilee pours south through the Jordan—just as the Nations stream through Galilee toward the South. Zebulun and Naphtali were the two tribes that got this northern land in the original division; they are the older names for the North. This is where Jesus went to begin his ministry: “in Capernaum by the sea.”
For the Israelites, the literal sea, the Mediterranean, was a scary place. They mostly left it to the Phoenecians: physically, boat-going people; culturally, cosmpolitan people, who mixed with the world. Israelites kept away from boats, and away from the nations. The salt sea is everything scary to Israel. The Greek word “sea,” like the word for “fisherman,” also means “salty”; it’s ironic to call the “sea” of Galilee “salty,” because it was known for its sweet fresh waters. But it is physically a place of boats—and culturally, a place of foreigners. Galilee of the Gentiles is the place where the cultural “seas” of the world crash onto the beaches of Israel, and threaten to stream down like the Jordan.
Israelites stayed away from the beach. Jesus went there to begin his ministry. That’s the real word play in “fishers of men”: not that they would catch men instead of fish (though that’s a nice idea, too), but that they would go forth, not just on the physical seas of Lake Galilee, but onto the cultural seas of the world, beginning from Galilee of the Gentiles: “salties of men,” Phoenicians rather than homebodies.
Our reading from First Corinthians talks about “divisions among you,” people more focused on who baptized or preached to them than on Baptism and the Gospel preached—people more focused on things that divide than on Christ who unites.
But Christ is the light of the world, who enlightens even dark places and brings “abundant joy and great rejoicing” to the places once conquered. That’s the original message of Isaiah to “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali”: you who were once taken away in exile will be set free.
“Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” It’s that message of repentance, and of the kingdom of Jesus, that is the heart of the Jesus, the “meaning,” as St. Paul say, of “the cross of Christ.” Let us not empty it of its meaning by falling to lesser things. Let us see the light of Christ, and set sail on the seas of the world.
Can you think of a relationship where the Gospel of Jesus Christ could help you transcend petty differences?