I have often thought that if I were a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, I would not have recognized him as the Messiah. I am assuming that I would have been educated in my faith and knew the signs of the Messiah, but would not have found them in Jesus. Now through hindsight and the genius of St. Paul, we can see them as plain as day. St. Matthew today tells us that our inability should not distress us – indeed should give us comfort. Let’s look at why.
The first thing to notice is that when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. This was eminently practical. He wanted to get as far from Jerusalem as possible. Yet notice that he quotes a loose interpretation of today’s first reading about Zebulun and Naphtali. They were Jewish territories in what became Galilee centuries before Jesus, and were the first Jewish lands taken by the Assyrians. This occurred around 732BC. One of the tasks of the Messiah was to bring all the Jews back together. Matthew is telling us that this is where they began to be separated, so this where the return should begin. To use his language, the darkness first fell here, so the light will first shine here.
It may seem that Matthew is covering up Jesus’ sensible and practical decision to be as much out of harm’s way as possible with some pious blather, but he is subtler than that. Matthew is a pastor – his aim is to bring his community together and he will need them to be aware of both political and spiritual realities. Both are usually operative at the same time. It is Matthew who will tell his people “Go forth as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16)
Also, this is Galilee of the Gentiles. He will direct his comments to the Jews, but it will be impossible to avoid Gentiles hearing this. Matthew’s community we must remember is composed of both born Jews and Gentiles and bringing them together is never far from his mind. He is preparing us for the conclusion of his Gospel: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit”. (Matthew 28:19)
He will next tell us that Jesus will continue John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. But then he will immediately describe not what that means, but who will proclaim it. This is a shrewd judgement and we must first look at not the who, but the how.
Rabbis would not call their followers. Potential disciples would search out a rabbi and ask to follow him. If the rabbi thought that the searcher had the right ideas on the law, he would accept him. If not, the potential pupil would have to go somewhere else. Jesus does exactly the opposite. He seeks out those who he wants. He begins not with examining their religious credentials, but with forming a relationship with them. This will be the most important thing. He does not tell them that they will be preaching the most sublime of doctrines – although they will – but that they will be fishers of men. They will bring others into the community of Jesus, the Church. This was to be the major relationship in a person’s life. James and John were still youngsters, under the care and supervision of their father, yet they left him and followed Jesus.
These were not scholars, but we should not patronize them either intellectually or culturally. Peter and Andrew owned their own boat. Commercial fishing was a very complicated affair. It required not only the skill to handle and repair nets, but the maintenance of the boat, paying the crew and negotiating the price of the fish. We should think of Peter, especially, as on a par with a licensed contractor or electrician and thus a person with considerable skills.
Contrast him with the high priests and scribes of the people who we saw with the Magi. They could recite chapter and verse of scripture, but were blind to the reality they studied.
This too reflects what Matthew needs to do in his community. He is not willing to put too much faith in the professionally religious. He needs their learning, but he will not forget or disparage practical people like Peter. We will see over the year that Peter is the hero of Matthew’s Gospel and he is very much not a “high priest or scribe of the People”. He will learn the scriptures as he follows Jesus.
Matthew is showing his people first and then us that the foundation of the church is our relationships with Jesus and each other. We build on this by knowing and using the scriptures, for us both the old and the new testaments. Reading Matthew requires that like his people, we have done our homework and are familiar with the scriptures and the applications of them in the doctrines and traditions of the Church. But to be an effective member of the church, accepting the call is the first and most important act.
We call ourselves a nation of searchers, but when it comes to God the important reality is not that we search for him but that he searches for us. As John tells us: “We love because he first loved us”. (1 John 4:19) He calls to us and by his grace we can accept that call and flourish both as individuals and as a community.
This is very comforting but demanding. God does not get tired, nor does he choose only the best and the brightest. He wants all of us and every part of us and he needs us to reach out to others. To paraphrase St.Teresa of Avila: “God has no hands or feet but ours”. Matthew wants us to know at the very beginning of the Gospel that only fishers of men can be builders of the Church.