Long quotes from the Old Testament , like the one which opens today’s Gospel, are not the most exciting passages in the scriptures. They may be important for scholars, but do not engage the common believer. Yet we ignore any passage of scripture at our peril. The Gospels, in particular, are written with great economy and every word is meaningful. This passage is important for understanding Jesus’s intentions and illuminates this week’s special celebration.
John has just been arrested and Jesus took up his message, repeating it word for word: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”.(Matthew 4:15 /3:2) He recognized that Jerusalem was too dangerous, so he moved to Capernaum in Galilee, a region well north of the capital. Matthew identifies it however as “Zebulun and Naphtali”. Meaningless to us on first reading but very important. These territories were part of the kingdom of Israel that was destroyed by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. The skilled workman and the literate were deported to serve elsewhere in their empire. The quote from Isaiah today (Is 8:23-9:1) expresses his hope that a new king will be born in Jerusalem and will reunite all the tribes of Israel and Judea. This did not happen immediately, but it was considered part of the future Messiah’s job description. This dismemberment was the great wound of the Jewish people who yearend to be whole again. By quoting this prophecy Matthew is demonstrating as he will throughout his gospel that Jesus is fulfilling God’s promises, but also that he will first bring the light of the Gospel to the land where it first went out.
What is that light?
It is not personal enlightenment; it is participation in the kingdom. He will slowly reveal what the kingdom means but even at this early stage in the gospel his hearers would have understood that it required recognition of one’s sinfulness with personal commitment to change and that it would mean becoming part of a new people, a new community.
Jesus would need to use new methods to accomplish this. Rabbis did not seek out disciples. They would come to him, follow him for some time and then either be accepted or not. Jesus approached the four fishermen in today’s Gospel and invited them to join him. The good news is too important to be kept quiet or hidden, it bursts out of any confine. Jesus tells these fishermen not that they will be great teachers who will dispense a new and compelling interpretation of the law but that they will be fishers of men. They will go out into the world as he did and bring others into the family of God. A sign of the kingdom will be the reunification of the people that was torn apart centuries ago in this same land.
This means leaving all behind. The call of James and John is particularly affecting, they literally left both their livelihood and their family. “and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him” (Mt 4:22)
As an itinerant preacher, Jesus would have been expected to travel from place to place to obtain funding and more disciples. But He is compelled by more than this. The light that he brings must be spread and it will be shown not only by his teachings but by his miracles. He preached the Gospel of the Kingdom and cured every disease and illness among the people. His original mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24) but we must remember that the gospel ends with the great command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, (Mt 28:19).
Today is Sunday of the Word of God. This is one of the initiatives of Pope Francis like the World Day of Prayer for the Poor”. But note how it is celebrated. We are not asked to attend a Diocesan workshop or a parish seminar on the Bible. Although I will note that our parish bible study begins again today, the focus of this celebration is the Sunday Mass. This is the time when the local community, the parish, comes together to worship. It is when we are most Jesus’ family and most fully the sign that the divisions that began in Zebulun and Naphtali are being healed.
Our gospel reading today fits well but I think the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus would be even better. It is the first Easter, two of Jesus’ disciples are leaving Jerusalem and meet a stranger on the way. They do not know that it is Jesus and only do so when he offers the eucharist with them. When he left, they said to each other: “Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32)
We experience the scriptures as the word of God and not just an important book when it sets our hearts on fire and not just informs or even inspires us. This fire impels us to others. The eyes of the disciples were opened only when they celebrated the eucharist with Jesus. The Eucharist is where our covenant with God and our fellow humans is forged and strengthened. In it we most truly know Jesus not just about him. After the Eucharist, Jesus disappeared from their sight and the disciples returned to Jerusalem to share their joy with the Apostles in the upper room. The impulse is always to build community.
A true encounter with the word of God will be fulfilled in the Eucharist, witness and charity. The Mass always begins with the Liturgy of the Word when the scriptures are proclaimed to the community, but it ends with injunction to go, love and serve those who sit in darkness, whether in the mean streets of the poor or the gilded enclaves of the rich. Wherever they are through our burning hearts they will experience the light of Christ.