Year A: Third Sunday Ordinary Time

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

Matthew 4:12-23

When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. ”As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the phrase the kingdom of heaven mean to you?
  2. A call to discipleship demands that we examine our life’s priorities. How have you reprioritized your life as a result of your professed faith and as a disciple of Christ?
  3. Beyond weekly worship, what actions of yours would tell others that you follow Jesus?
  4. What are you most attracted to in the human Jesus and how are you doing with cooperating with that attraction in word and deed?

Biblical Context

Matthew 4:12-23
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Matthew situates the inauguration of Jesus’ mission in the temporal context of the “handing over” of John the Baptist and the geography of Galilee, fertile with images from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. (Note: the same word the reading translated here as “arrested” is translated as “handed over” in the passion narrative.) There should be no doubt about what constituted the appropriate time for Jesus to begin his ministry: danger was in the air for people like him.

In terms of the geographical context, Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth for Capernaum, the place of the appearance of the great death-conquering light prophesied by Isaiah. That alerts the reader to the fact that Jesus was doing God’s will and that God was about to do something wonderful for Israel. The opening lines assure us that the story which follows is going to be about serious struggles.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus preached the same message as John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That one phrase could sum up the entire Gospel message.

“Repent!” The Greek word metanoia implies a total turn-around: meta means beyond or after and noeo refers to perception or understanding or even the mind itself. In the world of psychology the term metanoia suggests a falling apart and reconstitution of the personality. Pope John Paul II explained that metanoia implies a Gospel-based revision of a person’s underlying motivations, and therefore a thorough change in attitude and action (Ecclesia in America #26). This is something far deeper than sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of amendment. In fact, the emotion it implies would be more like excitement, even passion. Metanoia will be associated with fervor that may or may not include asceticism but necessarily involves an intensity and depth that can be nurtured over the long haul.

Such a change of heart and mind does not spring from an intellectual insight or a dogmatic assertion. As Matthew points out with his stories, metanoia happens as the result of an encounter with Jesus and the message he embodied: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That phrase was the core of Jesus’ living and eventually the accusation that led to his execution.

Matthew’s decision to refer to the kingdom “of heaven” rather than “of God,” is fortuitous in that it indicates that “kingdom” does not refer to a spatial reality. Rather than speaking of kingdom as a noun, we come closer to its meaning when we think of it as a verb form translatable as “the reigning of heaven,” or the “reigning of God.” That speaks of a quality of relationships rather than geography.

Jesus preached that the reigning of heaven was germinating in the midst of the people. Pope Francis explains that “Jesus lived in full harmony with creation, and others were amazed” (“Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” #98). Jesus’ preaching, born out in his works of healing, was as immensely attractive to some as it was threatening to others.

It is only that attraction that can explain the response of the fishermen. Jesus awakened something in them, something that caused metanoia, something that led them to say, “There’s nothing else that makes sense any longer if this is true.” So they followed him.

Following Fascination

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

I have seen a mother lean down to correct a child and say words so perfect, say sentences of such loving discipline, that, if the truth of what is happening is to be known, God must be praised. I have seen a man face death in such a way that it had no sting and my fascination made me mute. I have listened to a woman forgive a system that had badly violated her and forgive the men and women in that system who were unwitting accomplices. She forgave them not because she was too weak to retaliate but because forgiveness was the only way life could be served, both in her and in those who had hurt her.

These are fascinating responses. In fact, every day people are leaning into life and either coaxing or muscling it toward redemption. In creative ways that are difficult to predict, they are making things better. If we catch them at it and find ourselves attracted, we may want to know more.

We follow fascination, especially fascination that has our “name” on it. When we see someone thinking, feeling, or acting in a way which, at the present moment, we are not capable of but which we wish we were capable of, that way of thinking, feeling, or acting has our “name” on it. We see it as a liberating next step for ourselves and we apprentice ourselves to it. It draws us into discipleship. A disciple is merely a fascinated person who desires to know and do what they see in another. Our lives are inescapably interpersonal. We are always noticing others, what they think, say, and do. Toward many we are either indifferent or envious. Toward others we gravitate and learn. Sometimes this is a secret apprenticeship. These people do not know we are secretly taking clues from how they go about things. In biblical terms, we are watching them lace and unlace their sandals.

If we reflect on our lives, we will most likely discover a pattern of serial discipleship.

We have watched our parents, friends, teachers, coworkers, bosses, spouses, siblings, and pass-through people “lace and unlace their sandals.” While we may never literally leave our nets, boats, and families, we take our attention from everyday preoccupations long enough to follow the adventure of human possibility.

In the Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a fascinating person. He does not back away from Galilee where Herod Antipas has imprisoned John. Rather he goes about “all of Galilee” (Matt 4:23; NAB). He does not wait for people to come to him and ask to be his disciple. He assertively chooses them. This directness honors them, and they leave what they are doing to follow him. Jesus is a forthright energy, and this energy fascinates because it is the polar opposite of the universal human trait of timidity. We want to know more about where this man is coming from. We suspect it would remedy ennui and listlessness.

As Martin Luther asked, “What drives Christ?” Christ is only too willing to tell us, and so we continue to go back to his story to learn from him, to make our own the Spirit that drives him.

I heard about a woman who was the director of a drug rehabilitation center. One day a tall, strong man with a baseball bat entered the reception area. He was shouting obscenities and began banging the baton the desks of the secretaries and admitting personnel. They jumped back and tried to get as far away from him as possible. One ran into the back room and called the police.

The woman who directed the center came out and walked right up to the screaming man and wrapped his arms around his chest. In a heartfelt voice she
repeated over and over again, “Oh, you poor man! Oh, you poor man!” They stood together in that strange embrace for a while, and then the man began to sob. The woman led him to a chair. He slumped into it and waited for the police. He never let go of the baseball bat. I want to know how that woman laces and unlaces her shoes. I find her fascinating. And I suspect she knows what drives Christ.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.