In these early weeks of “ordinary” time we are increasingly introduced to Jesus and to the beginnings of his public ministry. In Matthew’s Gospel today we hear described how Jesus began his public ministry in the wake of the arrest of John the Baptist. And Matthew tells us three things regarding this ministry of Jesus: it’s Context, its Content, and it’s call. Let’s look at each in turn.
1. CONTEXT of Jesus Ministry – The text says, When Jesus 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.
The relocation of Jesus northward from Judea up to Galilee tells us some important truths. First, it tells us of the hostility of the southern regions to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus. The area in and around Judea which included, principally, Jerusalem was controlled by a sort of religious ruling class (the Sadducees especially, and to a lesser extent the Pharisees). Since they were in strong but often controverted leadership in these areas, they were far less open to ideas which in any way threatened their leadership or questioned the rituals related to the Temple. As we know, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but he did come to fulfill it and this was threatening to those tied to the current status quo, most of whom did not distinguish fulfillment from abolition, and saw only threat. Further, the Herodian dynasty was also threatening especially in the south and had arrested John the Baptist.
Jesus thus, moves north to more fertile territory to begin his public ministry. The Jewish people in Galilee were less hostile. In fact the people of Jerusalem often looked down upon them for their more simple, agrarian ways and “rural accent.” But here was more fertile ground for Jesus to begin.
Now there is an important lesson for us in this. While we must carefully preserve Christian orthodoxy and only accept a development of doctrine that is organic and faithful to the received Apostolic Tradition, it is also true that we can sometimes stifle the Holy Spirit who will speak to us through unexpected people and in unexpected ways. The Pharisee leaders simply rejected the notion that any prophet could come from Galilee. Whne Nicodemus encouraged them to give jesus a hearing they scoffed: Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee (Jn 7:52). It is possible for us to insist upon things where freedom is permitted the Christian. There are various degrees of expression permitted in the liturgy and there are often different schools of theological thought which the Church sanctions. Balance is required of us. There may be preferences that we have for Thomistic formulations, Carmelite spirituality, charismatic worship or traditional Latin Mass worship. Such things are legitimate matters for on-going discussion, but we can too easily be threatened by what the Church currently deems to be legitimate diversity. Discovering a the range and limits of diversity is an on-going matter for the Church but we ought not permit the field of our own soul to be hostile to Jesus and his ministry, which may come to us more diverse ways that we, of our self, prefer.
How tragic it was for Judea that Jesus thought he had to move on to more fertile territory, and what a blessing it was for Galilee that he moved there. The fact is that unfounded stubbornness can be hinder the Word of God in us. Jesus moved on to a more accepting context wherein his ministry could bear the greatest fruit. St. Gregory the Great has this to say about the context for preaching and necessary fertility of the field:
For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness. as the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (PS 50:16) On the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly as the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. (Ez 3:26) He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away for they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth. It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock. – (St. Gregory the Great Hom. 17,3, 14)
For Galilee there was this boon: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (Is 9:2) But for others, Jesus had only this to say, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. (Matt 21:43)
2. The CONTENT of his MINISTRY – The text says, From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
We have discussed before the careful balance of Jesus’ preaching. He is willing to challenge and so say, Repent! But he also declares the good news that the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Accepting the ministry of Jesus requires that we avoid both presumption and despair.
To those who make light of sin and their condition as a sinner, Jesus says repent. It is wrong to presume that we do not need an on-going healing power from the Lord to overcome our sin. And perhaps our greatest sin is our blindness to our sin. Most human beings do not seem to comprehend how serious their condition is. The word translated here as “Repent!” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite) which means more literally to come to a new mind, or a new way of thinking. In our sin soaked world where sin is so pervasive as to almost be unnoticed, Jesus says, “Come to a new mind. Understand your condition and need for mercy and grace. Come to understand that without the rescue that only God can give, you are lost.” And hence we are told to reject presumption.
But we are also told to reject despair, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, the grace and mercy of God are now available to rescue us from this present evil age and from our carnal condition. Through Christ we are granted admittance to the Kingdom and the Spirit of God can overcome our carnal, sin nature and bring us true holiness.
The proper mean between presumption and despair is the theological virtue of Hope. By hope we confidently expect God’s help in attaining eternal life. By proper metanoia (repentance) we know that we need that help, and by hope confidently reach for it.
In our own proclamation of the kingdom we also need the proper balance exhibited by Jesus. Consider how, with children, that if all they hear is criticism they become discouraged (despair). But if all they hear is praise and are never corrected: they become spoiled and prideful and presume everything should be just as they want it. For the Church too, a balance is necessary. Too many expect the Church only to affirm and “be positive.” But this leads to a more selfish and incorrigible world and to a presumption that nothing matters (as we can plainly see). Thus the Church must announce the call to repentance. But the Church must also offer hope and mercy to sinners. She must offer grace though the Sacraments and by her preaching which, with God’s power, makes the Kingdom of God to be “at hand.”
3. The CALL of his Ministry The text says, 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.
Jesus, in building his kingdom, summons men to follow him. He will train them to be the leaders of his Church as Apostles. The Kingdom of God is not only about calling disciples but also about developing leaders to provide order and authority in the Church. Even the most “democratic” of organizations requires authority and leadership. Without these there is anarchy and a battle of wills. Hence the Lord calls not only disciples, in the early stages of his public ministry, he also grooms leaders. Consider three things about the Lord’s call here.
A. His ARTICULATENESS: He says to these apostles, Come Follow me! Notice that his announcement is unambiguous. Good leaders like the Lord are clear to make known what they ask, indeed, what is demanded. He is clear to set the course and point the way. And HE is that way.
B. His APPEAL – Jesus must have had a personal appeal and exuded an authority that was strong and reassuring. His appeal to them was personal: come follow ME. He did not merely say come and “learn my doctrine,” or “accept my vision.” He said, follow ME. So too, as we hand on the faith to our children and to others, we cannot simply say, here is a Catechism follow it. We must also take the next step and say follow the Lord with me. We cannot simply say what a book says, correct though that book is. Ultimately we must be able to say, I am a personal witness to the fact that God is real and that the truth he has given to the Church is authentic and is changing my life. Our appeal must include the personal testimony that what we proclaim is real and is changing our life: COme and go with me to my Father’s house.
C. His APPROACH – Note that the Lord builds on what they know: fishing. He starts with the familiar to draw them to the less familiar. In a way he is saying that the gifts they are currently using are just the gifts they can use as leaders in God’s Kingdom. Fishermen are:
- Patient – Fishermen often wait long hours for the fish to bite. So too as Apostles and Bishops there must be a patience, a capacity to wait long periods before there is a catch for the Lord.
- Perceptive – Fishermen learn to know the fish and their behavior and what attracts them. So too Apostles and clergy must learn of their people and what will attract them to Christ.
- Persevering – Fishermen must often go out for many days with little catch. Only through perseverance is there real gain in fishing. So too with the Work of the clergy who may go long stretches with little to show. The gospel may go “out of season” even for decades in certain cultures (like our own). The good leader will persevere, will stay at the task.
3. The COMPREHENSIVENESS of his Ministry – The text says, 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.
Therefore note that all of Galilee was his mission field and he covered it comprehensively. He also cured of every disease and illness. And thus the Church is catholic and must also address every part of the world and provide a comprehensive vision for life. We may not have the power to simplistically cure every ailment and problem, but we can provide the vision of the Paschal mystery that sheds light and brings spiritual healing to every affliction. If we are suffering and dying, so to did Jesus but only to rise and be glorified on account of his fidelity and obedience. So too for the Church and for the Christian, the grace and the comprehensive answer to every affliction is that we are always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Christ so that the rising of Christ may also be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10). We seek to bring healing to everyone we can, and where physical remedies are not possible, the truth of the Gospel reassures that every Friday, faithfully endured, brings forth, by God’s grace an Easter Sunday.
Here then are three crucial insights to the beginning of Jesus public ministry. They remain for the Church and for all of us who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps important insights for us to acknowledge and imitate.
Now journey with me back to 1971, a year of funny hair to be sure, but here is the old Classic “Come and God With Me to My Father’s House”