3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4 Matthew 4:12-23
Rev. Zachary L. Bay
I have preached this Gospel Lesson passage numerous times.
You have heard it preached more times than I have preached it.
There is a lot to work with, here.
Today, I want to begin at the end—that final verse in the reading.
“Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people.”
For centuries, the Church in most all of its incarnations—conservative and liberal, mainline and evangelical, Catholic and Protestant—has used this line among others in the New Testament to talk about its two tasks: 1.) preaching the Gospel to save souls, and 2.) providing charity work. This is a logical place in the Bible for the Church to look for such guidance; Jesus just called his first disciples. Presumably, they are traveling with him as he goes throughout Galilee. The Church—in whatever denominational and theological form—claims to be made up of Jesus’ disciples, and so, there ya go. One: Preach the Gospel to save souls, and Two: provide charity work.
Of course, this interpretation of verse 23 requires a rather ahistorical and literalist reading of the text of Scripture. It requires that we modern folks read our scientific understandings of medicine into the words “disease and sickness.” It requires that we reduce “the good news of the kingdom” down to words preached just before an altar call is made. Today, as we entertain the notion of calling—as we ponder what calling means for each of us a disciples of Jesus Christ—I’d like to put a little context around this story of Jesus calling disciples. As you ponder the meaning of calling, listen to the implications of this story on that subject.
Today’s Gospel Lesson opens not with the words of Jesus, but with the words of Matthew the evangelist. Matthew is narrating the context.
“Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee.” Luke’s Gospel identifies John and Jesus as relatives. Matthew tells us that when John was just locked up by the Roman Empire for criticizing Roman power, and Jesus withdraws to Galilee. I wonder what is going on inside of Jesus in this moment. He has just returned from facing temptation and agony in the desert, which followed on the heels of his publicly submitting himself to John for baptism. The Romans and their subjects who had arrested John had seen him in the water with John. They had to know he was John’s relative. Word surely had gotten back to them about what John had said of Jesus that day. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” I wonder what is going on inside of Jesus in this moment when he hears of John’s arrest and withdraws to Galilee. Anger? Fear? Wonder about whether or not it had been a good idea to get into that water that day? Worry for his friend and relative? All of the above?
Matthew tells us that Jesus withdraws to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. I thought it odd that Matthew used those old place names in addition to those of his day, so I spent some time this week digging around Zebulun and Naphtali. I noticed as you did that the lectionary helpfully paired together this passage in Matthew with the passage in Isaiah that Matthew references. I looked back at that Isaiah passage set within the period of the Assyrian occupation of Israel and noticed the themes there:
A pitch-dark land.
Light has dawned.
A celebration—from the oppressed—of “a nation made great.” A nation that does not “divide plunder.”
The shattering of
a staff on the shoulders,
the rod of oppressors.
By referencing Isaiah—by invoking Zebulun and Naphtali and darkness and light—Matthew footnotes all of these ideas into the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. And then, Matthew abruptly switches from his own narrating voice to the voice of Jesus:
“Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Jesus may have withdrawn geographically to Galilee, but Jesus has clearly not withdrawn theologically. Go back and have a look at Matthew 3:2. Even as the empire arrests John to shut him up, Jesus is quoting John the Baptist. Jesus is “announcing” it, the text tells us. The same message that John the Baptist was preaching is now on Jesus lips. Matthew quoted Isaiah in the John’s story, too, saying of John the Baptist that he was the one Isaiah was talking about when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Those are fightin’ words, friends. There is only one “Lord” in Rome, and it sure as heck ain’t the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do you see what John the Baptist is up to? Do you see what Matthew—the evangelist that gives us this Gospel—is up to here in adding in references to Isaiah? Do you see what Jesus is up to here?
“Change your hearts and lives,” Jesus announces, “Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Those are fightin’ words, friends. There is only one “kingdom” in Rome, and it sure as heck ain’t the Kingdom of David.
With that context ringing in our ears, let’s turn to the content of the story with which we are so familiar.
“As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen.
“ ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘ and I’ll show you how to fish for people.’ Right away, they left their nets and followed him. Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in the boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”
I’ve always wondered what would possess four people to “right away” and “immediately” leave their business—their livelihood and their financial security and their families, and follow a guy who walked up and said “Follow me?” I suppose that one possible answer—one that I’ve heard preached in various ways so many times—is that the four fishermen looked up into the face of the one standing there and calling them and was overwhelmed with a sense of majesty and goodness and grace…but the text of Matthew doesn’t really say anything that supports such an interpretation. What Matthew does say is that Jesus came to Galilee announcing publicly what John the Baptist had announced in the Jordan River: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” And then, when Jesus appears before Peter and Andrew, James and John, they don’t hesitate for a second. With Isaiah’s words and John’s words ringing in their ears, these lowly workers living in the shadows of the Roman Empire’s occupation of their land hear Jesus’ words and leap at the opportunity to work for their own liberation and the liberation of their kinfolk. That interpretation finds traction in Matthew’s story.
And, at last, we come back to the verse at which we began. “Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people.”
Given the context, what does it mean?
For centuries, the Church in most all of its incarnations—conservative and liberal, mainline and evangelical, Catholic and Protestant—the Church has used this line among others in the New Testament to talk about its two tasks: 1.) preaching the Gospel to save souls, and 2.) providing charity work. This is a logical place in the Bible for the Church to look for such guidance; Jesus just called his first disciples. Presumably, they are traveling with him as he goes throughout Galilee. The Church—in whatever denominational and theological form—claims to be made up of Jesus’ disciples, and so, there ya go. One: Preach the Gospel to save souls, and Two: provide charity work.
But today…in context…I can’t hear it that way. Jesus is in Galilee—the place to which he fled for his life when John was arrested. Jesus is teaching not in the Temple in the center of the land, but in the synagogues on the margins of the land. In the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—two of Jacob’s forgotten sons. The margins…where lepers and eunichs and all sorts of unclean sinners are relegated by those put in power by Rome back in Jerusalem. The margins…with the “sinners”…is where we find Jesus in this story.
It is there that Jesus is announcing the good news of the kingdom. If Matthew’s context is to be believed, it is there that Jesus is bringing light into the darkness. It is there that Jesus is proclaiming a kingdom of liberation from the yokes and staffs and rods of oppressors. It is there that Jesus…who is a rabbi—not a physician—is said to be healing diseases and sickness. Put aside your scientific understandings of disease for a moment. This text is 2,000 years old. Jesus isn’t a doctor. When a rabbi proclaims healing upon a diseased of sick person in the first century, the rabbi is announcing them as clean. The rabbi is reopening the doors of the community to them. The doors of community that were shut in their faces by the Roman-sanctioned leaders back in Jerusalem. Jesus is including those who have been excluded. Any of them. All of them. That’s why John was arrested. That’s why Jesus fled to the land of Jacob’s forgotten sons. That’s why Jesus will be arrested. He went to those who weren’t to be included and announced the good news to them: they belong.
When we talk about calling—yours and mine—that’s the context Matthew puts around it. It’s not just about souls. It’s about bodies and spaces and justice, too.
“As Jesus walked along the Galilee Sea, he saw a congregation of Baptists. They were busy mending their nets and doing good work as their parents had taught them.
And Jesus said, ‘Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.’”
And they responded…