A lot of things are happening in our Gospel reading today. I call them life-changing moments for all the characters mentioned by Matthew — for John the Baptist, for Jesus, and for the two brother-tandems: Simon and Andrew, James and John.
Life-changing for JOHN THE BAPTIST; he has just been arrested and his movement has been left without a leader. Most likely most of his disciples have also gone into hiding for fear that they too might end up in prison. Who would take his place now?
Life-changing for JESUS: he leaves Nazareth and settles in Capernaum by the lake of Galilee for the rest of his public life.
Finally, life-changing also for the two brother-tandems: SIMON and ANDREW, JAMES and JOHN. They leave their families, their jobs, and their home towns. They switch from being fishermen to being “fishers of men.”
The arrest of John the Baptist is supposed to be a grim development in their history. But Matthew is quoting Isaiah to point out that it is actually the occasion for the fulfillment of the prophet’s oracle for the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali—the regions by the lake of Galilee that will be the first witnesses to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.
I hope you noticed that Matthew has in fact quoted a long portion of that text from our first reading from Isaiah, “…the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light, on those who dwelling in a land of gloom light has arisen.” He presents Jesus as the great light that Isaiah had prophesied would shine upon Zebulun and Naphtali.
First, let us look at the dark and gloomy context that I called life-changing for Jesus: his cousin and mentor has just been imprisoned by the governor of Galilee, Herod Antipas. Most likely John had been charged of sedition because of his prophetic preaching.
Matthew turns this dark situation into a bright development. It paves the way for Jesus’ own public ministry, this time, no longer as a disciple but as the leader of his own group, some of whom are former disciples of John the Baptist, including Jesus himself.
Jesus is supposed to have withdrawn to Capernaum in order to hide, or to “lie low” as activists used to say it; Matthew tells us instead of hiding, he comes out. Suddenly he is preaching with a tone of urgency; he has no time to waste. His message is “The kingdom of God is at hand!”
But instead of proclaiming it with foreboding like John the Baptist who was warning people of a time of reckoning, he is proclaiming it as a good news! And Capernaum becomes his home base for his ministry, which will consist of teaching, healing, and expelling demons.
Like I said, this defining moment for Jesus will also become a life-changing moment for his first disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers. If Jesus has had to transition from carpenter to prophet, these fishermen are now transitioning from fishermen to “fishers of men.”
Remember, Simon whom we Roman Catholic Christians would know as Peter and first bishop of Rome? He had a wife, a family in Capernaum. We do not know much about his brother Andrew. It looks like he was not married but had to take his brother’s place as breadwinner for the family when Peter married into a family in Capernaum. Most likely Simon (Peter) entrusted to him the task of taking care of his elderly parents in Bethsaida. In my book Yeshua, I also imagined how angry Simon must have been when he heard that his brother Andrew had left his parents to follow, first, John the Baptist in the desert, and now, Jesus. But it is Andrew who would change his life by introducing him to Jesus. James and John too had to leave their parents—Zebedee and their mother. They also had to leave behind their ambitions.
Before taking part in the ministry of teaching, they had first to be learners, followers, or disciples. In order to work for healing, they had first to learn empathy and compassion. They had to be capable of feeling the pain of others as their own—every illness, every disease.
Leaving home is part of the journey of most people. At some point in our lives, we find ourselves leaving familiar grounds in order to respond to a calling and a sense of mission and purpose in life.
Usually, you go through a discernment process and consult people about the crossroads ahead, which way to go. And people who matter to you will not always be that supportive. Some will say “Go for it!” Other will say, “Stay.” And you are confused.
The work the first disciples were called to involved a lot of teaching, healing, and exorcising, but all in the light of proclaiming a good news. Proclaiming the reign of God not as a future event but as an actual present-day experience. Remember, this was also what he said when he went back to Nazareth and preached in his home synagogue about his mission as consisting mainly of fulfilling the words of the prophets Isaiah—the anointing for a task of bringing good news to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, release to prisoners, and a jubilee of forgiveness from debts. When? Now. Today. Where? Here. (Lk 4:16-21) And people get so angered by his words, they want to throw him down from a precipice.
Perhaps we should add that the transfer of Jesus to Capernaum becomes life-changing also for another character whom Matthew does not mention specifically, but who is the most significant person who would be affected by his departure from Nazareth. I am of course talking about Mama Mary.
In my book YESHUA, which I call an exercise in “reading between the lines using one’s creative imagination,” I suggested that Jesus’ departure from Nazareth was with his mother’s support. Mary must have been worried that her son Jesus might be next in line to be arrested because he was closely associated with his cousin John and had become known as John’s favorite disciple and prospective successor. It would be easy for the authorities to find this man who was identified as “the carpenter from Nazareth.” I therefore imagined that painful scene of the parting between mother and son—with Mary literally pushing Jesus away to leave Nazareth, and Jesus leaving with a heavy heart because he worries about his mother, who by this time is already a widow.
Whether it was Jesus or Simon and Andrew, or James and John, or Mary—the call to mission begins with a judgment call that alone could turn a moment of gloom and darkness into the dawning of light and hope. It begins with a difficult decision to leave one’s comfort zone and to venture into unfamiliar grounds, like fishermen casting into the deep.
There is one song by the Beatles, written by John Lennon about a person who looks back without regret at the judgment calls that he had made during some life-changing moments that made him leave behind some people and places that were most precious to him. It is entitled IN MY LIFE.
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all.
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more
Think about the many transitions that may have happened in your own life, like those that did in the life of Jesus and his first disciples and of Mary. Transitions that may have been difficult, that called for a lot of prayer and discernment, decisions that have changed your life for good, all because you felt the call to do, not your will but God’s will.
In your life you know you loved them all; but you responded nevertheless to leave them all behind only to be able to say to God, IN MY LIFE, I LOVE YOU MORE.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 22 Jan 2023, Mt 4:12-23