After the Baptism of the Lord and the second Sunday (John’s commentary on the Baptism), this past, third Sunday we began Matthew’s Gospel in earnest. Matthew 1-2 is the infancy, with the exile to Egypt
and the return to Nazareth. Matthew 3 is John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus. Matthew 4:1-11 is the temptation in the desert.
This week we launch in at Matthew 4:12, beginning a year of working through that great Gospel: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
There is much in that word “withdrew.” The Greek means something like “went back.” But the key to the word is the context.
We learned in the story of the Baptism that “Jesus came from Galilee” to meet John, who was “preaching in the wilderness of Judea,” at the Jordan. Now, Judea is where Jerusalem is, and if he was at the Jordan River, that means he was some place between Jericho and the Dead Sea, less than twenty miles from the big city. John was in the wilderness – but he was in the wilderness near where the action was.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Scribes and the Pharisees were there: “Jerusalem and all Judea went out to him.” And it’s not surprising that John was thrown in prison – later in the Gospel we’ll learn of his feud with the king himself. John was where the action was.
But Jesus “went back” to Galilee, in the North. In our reading, we hear about that city in a quotation from Isaiah – and our first reading encourages us to dig deeper into that passage.
We might think Jesus was just going north to avoid arrest, but Isaiah gives us more. He went to “Galilee of the Gentiles”; Galilee was on the borderlands of Israel, where the non-Jews were. The old lands of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are on the far margins. It is “the way to the sea,” where there is traffic, but not Jewish traffic, not the important people.
Isaiah says these are the lands of “the people who sit in darkness . . . in a land overshadowed by death.” But he says too that those lands “have seen a great light,” that God brings them “abundant joy and great rejoicing.”
In Matthew’s rereading of that text (and when the liturgy encourages us to dwell on it) we find Galilee as a special place of mission for Jesus.
Jesus is on the edge of nowhere – but he is there to fulfill the prophecies, and to bring light. He is there on mission.
Jesus could have stayed in the heartlands of Judea and kept quiet. Instead, he goes to the margins and proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus isn’t avoiding trouble, he’s going on mission. Notice the parallel to Luke, where Jesus starts his mission by proclaiming, “He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor.”
The pattern is repeated in the calling of Andrew and Peter, John and James. On the one hand, Jesus goes to the nobodies. There would have been better candidates in the synagogues, or in the Temple, or in the Big City. Today, we would go to media and university elites, people with influence. Instead, Jesus goes to nobodies, the poor, the laborers.
But he calls them to follow him, and equips them for mission. Right from the outset, from the very first words about these fishermen, we hear that Simon will be called Peter, the rock. Jesus isn’t among the nobodies to avoid trouble. He is there to stir up trouble. He takes mission seriously enough to go to the margins.
“Fishers of men” sounds nice in English, partly because of the alliteration with “fishermen”. But in Greek, the word for “fishermen” is derived from the word from salt – more like “salties”; the primary meaning is “sailor,” and it is fisherman by extension. “Salties of men” doesn’t sound impressive. But he chooses those laborers, those poor men, as the ones who know what salvation means.
At the beginning of the year, our Epistles are from First Corinthians. The connection isn’t obvious: St. Paul is talking about division in the Church. He says they ought to “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” He was not sent to baptize but to preach the Gospel.
Alongside our Gospel, we can say this: the poverty and insignificance of Galilee and the salties reminds us to see no one but Jesus. We must follow him – all the way to the margins – and focus on nothing else.
And so too, we must focus, not on the elite, but on the weak, “not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”
Where is Christ calling you to the margins, to the nobodies? How are you tempted instead to seek the places of power?