The arrest of John the Baptizer by Herod signals that John’s time of ministry is coming to an end and Jesus’ ministry is beginning. Matthew does not mention where Jesus has settled by accident. The area was called Galilee, but Matthew refers to the ancient names given when the twelve tribes of Israel settled the Promised Land. This land was set aside for Zebulun and Naphtali, but it was no longer called that by the first century. However, most of the first hearers of this gospel were Jewish Christian, so they would recognize the reference to 1the prophet Isaiah in Hebrew scripture. Matthew quotes from our first reading for today because he sees the prophetic words of Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus. “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, in Galilee of the gentiles…the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
By the first century when Jesus lived there the people of Galilee had known many times of living in darkness, having being conquered by various foreign enemies over the centuries and then liberated. During the time of Jesus, Rome ruled Israel, including Galilee, as a patron state. There was oppression and high taxation, but nothing compared to what happened after the year 70, when the Jews rebelled and the Romans put down their rebellion in a vicious and bloody assault which destroyed the temple. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, around the year 80, the people of Galilee were being directly ruled by Rome with no allowances for their own local authorities and customs, as had been the case in the time of Jesus. This was a cruel and hard occupation, so the first hearers of this gospel indeed felt that they were living in deep darkness, and were in need of the bright light of God to shine upon them.
Matthew is very clear that the ministry of Jesus was the light that would shine through the darkness of any oppression they might experience. Matthew tells us three things about Jesus’ ministry. First, he went about Galilee proclaiming “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.” That is exactly the same message that John proclaimed, calling the people to repentance. This does not just mean saying we are sorry for something, it calls for a complete change of heart, a reversal of the course we are following in life to one that is led by God.
Matthew also tells us that Jesus went throughout Galilee “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” Jesus was fulfilling his mission, to tell the people about God’s message of mercy, compassion and justice for all. This came as very good news to both the people to whom Jesus was speaking and those who would hear these words a half century later when Matthew wrote them. Today these words encourage us to offer mercy and compassion to those who are suffering, whether in body, mind or spirit; and to lead the fight against any injustice we encounter in the world.
We are also told that Jesus went about curing “every disease and every sickness” among the people. Many of the stories in the gospel narratives are about healing, whether personal illustrations or, as here, a more general observation about the many people Jesus made whole again. Although disease and sickness are always present in the world, this was especially true during the Roman Empire. Rome’s ruling structure and practices were bad for people’s health. At any one time, 70-90% of the population in the Roman Empire experienced poverty. As many as 70% of the people were desperately poor, while others would temporarily fall beneath subsistence levels.
Little was known about hygiene, water quality was poor and there was rampant food insecurity with poor quality and limited quantities available. All these factors contributed to widespread disease associated with poor nutrition, lack of immunity and high levels of stress. People depended on hard physical labor in order to survive and such illnesses were often debilitating or fatal. The healing power of Jesus was desperately needed and greatly appreciated. It brought a complete reversal in their lives because Jesus restored what the empire had damaged. Throughout Matthew’s gospel the prophecies of Isaiah – that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them” will be fulfilled by Jesus.
Our gospel for today is also well known as the call story of two sets of brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter and James and John. In the time of Jesus there were many rabbis who taught, some were itinerant and some established in the synagogues scattered throughout Galilee and Judea. The custom was that the rabbis would read scripture and then expound on it and people would gather to listen. The older boys and men who revealed the greatest understanding and asked the best questions often became disciples, or followers, of a particular rabbi.
But Jesus does not follow this pattern. Matthew tells us he is walking by the Lake of Galilee when he sees the two sets of brothers, fishing and mending their nets. He calls to them to follow him, and they “immediately” leave what they are doing and follow him. Fishing was their livelihood, yet they were willing to go on the road with Jesus, listening to him and learning from him. We might wonder what could Zebedee possibly have been thinking when James and John took off to follow Jesus and left him to finish mending the nets. This was a radical departure from their normal lifestyle. Fishing was a six day a week occupation, and like today, hard and dangerous work which was not making most fishermen wealthy. Rome controlled all production, both from the land and the sea, as well as the transportation and marketing of goods. These men were subject to the harsh contracts and high taxes imposed by Rome. It wasn’t an easy life but it could provide a subsistence living.
Instead, Jesus calls them to a whole new way of life, a new community and a new mission – to “fish for people.” They must have wondered what that meant. He offers a new kind of empire or kingdom, one ruled by God’s mercy, compassion and justice. This new way of life offered by Jesus is a light shining in the darkness of their current lives. Remarkably, Matthew tells us that they immediately left what they were doing and followed Jesus. And we know from the rest of the stories that they will remain loyal to Jesus. They won’t always understand what he is trying to teach them, but they won’t desert him, they travel with him throughout Israel, they accompany him on the final journey to Jerusalem, and after his death and resurrection they go out into the world to share the good news that he brought. That is pretty amazing.
Like those first disciples, we cannot achieve repentance, a complete turning around of our lives alone. We can only, like them, be open to it. When it is offered to us, we have to make a decision, whether to believe in what Jesus offers, to accept him as the Messiah, or just respect him as an interesting philosopher and teacher, as many do. Just like those first disciples, it is not a one-time only commitment. The disciples had to renew their acceptance of that new way of life with Jesus over and over again. We are each called to make that same decision. We have to choose whether to think of our faith as a nice idea and a comfort in difficult times or to make the faithful following of Christ the center of our lives. Christ’s call comes to each of us individually with the promise to transform us, and we must each decide for ourselves whether to accept. Although it is an individual decision, we are called together because only together can we make Christ present in our world. The story that took place two centuries ago on the lake shore is one that continues to happen again and again in our lives. The invitation to follow and be part of God’s kingdom is constantly being extended, and we are being challenged to accept. Amen.