Scripture notes – 3rd Sunday of the year, A – 22nd January 2023

After the baptism of Jesus read last week, the gospel shows his testing by the powers of evil, an account the liturgy saves for Lent. He then began his public ministry not at the centre of Jewish life, in Jerusalem and Judea, but what today would be called a ‘marginal’ area, where he grew up in Galilee. Matthew continues what he began in his infancy account – finding a prophecy for the geographic location.

The readings are available online here.

Isaiah 8:23-9:3
‘Isaiah of Jerusalem’, the first of several prophets collected in the book of the name, is the source for Matthew’s quotation in the gospel selection. Zebulon and Naphtali were two of the sons of Jacob/Israel, whose names were given to the twelves tribes of Israel. (The family stories are found in Genesis from chapter 25 on.) After the conquest of Canaan when the Hebrews returned from Egypt, the land was portioned out between the tribes (Joshua chapters 13-21). In 733 BCE before the time of Isaiah, the northern parts of Palestine including the tribal lands of Zebulon and Naphtali, had been conquered by Assyria. This explains why Isaiah speaks of their living in ‘darkness’.

‘The day of Midian’ is a reminder of the conquest under Joshua which was seen as God’s work; ‘God has put Midian under your power’ (Judges 7:15). This indicates that the light coming for the northern areas will also be the work of God. Isaiah expects this liberation to come with a Messianic figure; Matthew sees Jesus as fulfilling this role – though in a far different way than political conquest.

Psalm 26/27:1, 4, 13-14
The psalm refrain picks up the ‘light’ from Isaiah and the reminder that what ‘enlightens’ us comes from God. The firm confidence of the Psalmist echoes that of Isaiah and foreshadows the decision of the disciples in the gospel.

1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
This follows immediately from the opening formula of the Letter, plunging into the issue that has been brought to Paul about the divisions taking place in the Corinthian church. The unity of Christians with Jesus and with each other is the essential to Paul and is shown in various letters. In this case, the community has set up factions based on a sense of allegiance to different leaders. The reasons may not be as clear to us, but the basic issue for Paul is unity rather than any divisions. The problem in Corinth is echoed over the centuries in many Christian divided communities, some over personalities as in the Corinthian case. Almost every week now I read in a Catholic publication of verbal attacks about others in the church, a concern to claim the ‘right’ point of view, the right person to support. Paul challenges them to see that such incidents really violate the core of commitment to Jesus, as he says they ‘parcel out’ or ‘split’ Christ rather than all gather together as belonging to Christ through the power of his crucifixion and resurrection.

As it happens, we are in the world-wide ‘octave of prayer for Christian unity’, so this selection is timely. The week focuses on finding unity instead of differences between various Christian denominations, but can also remind us of disagreeing factions within our own church. Paul wants us to recognise that disciples are meant to be together in a family by our commitment to Jesus and our shared baptism. This union – not any divisions – is meant to be our emphasis in both faith and actions. It can be especially difficult when holding strong views about doctrine and practice, but we have Jesus praying for us to accept this: at his Last Supper he asked, ‘that all may be one’. (John 17:20-21)

Matthew 4:12-23
After the revelation of ‘beloved son’ at his baptism by John which we heard last week, Jesus went through a ‘testing’ process with the powers of evil – that account is saved for Lent. After Jesus success in banishing Satan, he is ready to begin what is called his ‘public ministry’ of teaching and healing. He does not begin in Judea or Jerusalem where John preached. and Matthew’s account links it to John’s arrest by Herod Antipas, who will later have him killed. Rather than stay in that jurisdiction, Jesus returns to the northern territory where he grew up. He starts not in Nazareth, but the larger city of the area, Capernaum. This was a fishing and commercial centre on the shore of what Matthew calls ‘the sea of Galilee’. Matthew makes his proclamation the same words that John the Baptiser used, stressing the continuity with the past even as a new era opens.

Matthew throughout his ‘infancy account’ has found bible quotations for each geographic area mentioned, and now chooses the one from Isaiah in our first reading. The quotation recognises the reputation of Galilee among the Judeans at that time. Because it was close to Gentile territory and farther from the Temple in Jerusalem, it was regarded as a backwater where people were not strictly observant of the fine details of the Law. Two examples of this attitude are in the Gospel of John. When Nathaniel first hears of Jesus, he replies, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46) When Nicodemus urges the Jewish leaders not to pass judgment on Jesus, the Pharisees say, ‘Look into the matter and see for yourself: prophets do not come out of Galilee.’ (John 7:52)

When the Old Testament is quoted in the New, it is written in Greek, sometimes word for word from the main surviving Greek version (called the Septuagint, abbreviated LXX). Sometimes the quotation is closer to varying words of our standard Hebrew text. Other times it is not exactly either the Hebrew or the Greek, and such is today’s reading. While he may have known a differing version, it is possible that Matthew felt inspired to make a few changes to emphasise his point, such as adding ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’. This would fit Matthew’s emphasis that the Gospel message is for all the world as well as the Jews, and it clarifies the area for those not so familiar with Zebulon and Naphtali, two of the more obscure sons of Jacob. It is likely that the community around Matthew was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles and he wants to include both, noting it at the beginning and end of his gospel.

After the one sentence summary of Jesus’ proclamation, Matthew recounts the call to the first disciples who will follow Jesus through his ministry, and after the resurrection, will carry the message around the world. It seems important to Matthew to let his readers know they are reliable witnesses of what he taught and did, as they were there at the very beginning of his preaching.

Matthew and Mark take no interest in the details of what they might have known about Jesus before he found them on the lakeside, or why they reached their decision. (Compare John who tells us Andrew and Peter met him right after this baptism in the Jordan, and Luke who describes a miraculous catch of fish, which lets them know something of his power.)

I see what is often overlooked – the wit Jesus’ used in his call to the fishers. Jews delighted in word play and finding them in their occupation of casting nets and bringing in a catch of fish, he expresses their new vocation in words related to their old. They will ‘catch’ people and bring them into Jesus’ community. I think this would invite a smile as well as their active response. Jesus’ sense of humour was part of the fullness of his humanity.

The four Galileans will be among the future leaders of the church, the ‘Twelve Apostles’ which is seen a reference to the twelve tribes that made up Israel. While no hint is given of why these four in particular were selected, their ‘immediate’ whole-hearted response is the ideal of discipleship and ministry. This kind of willingness will be emphasised at various places in the gospel.

Matthew concludes with a summary of healing and teaching, as he will often do to wrap up a section. The full text is longer than the liturgy selection mentioning Jesus’ popularity through the surrounding areas and the ‘great crowds’ who came to hear him and be cured.

Joan Griffith