John Michael Gutierrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James, son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
The Gospel of the Lord
Consistently during the Sundays of Advent through Christmas, Matthew’s Gospel readings develop the complexity of Jesus’ messianic identity through dreams, the shaping presence of the Spirit, speeches, angelic appearances, probing questions and geography. During Epiphany’s Sundays, the climax of the Advent/Christmas season, the complexity of Jesus’ mission is developed through dreams, the shaping presence of the Spirit, speeches, angelic appearances, probing questions and geography. This morning’s lectionary brings the core ideas of Jesus’ identity and mission in the two seasons together around the Baptizer. In Advent 3’s Gospel John sent some of his disciples from his imprisonment to Jesus with probing questions intended to clarify his messianic identity. This morning’s Gospel reading, Epiphany 3, takes us back before John’s arrest to Jesus’ response to the first news about that arrest. As it turns out the Baptizer’s arrest signals for Matthew the beginning of Jesus’ mission and his assembling a nucleus of followers to share in the task of reaching Jews and Gentiles with the kingdom message.
This Sunday’s Gospel, a mere 11 sentences, needs close reading in order to unpack its key features. So allow me to pause for a public service announcement: One of the ways to enrich our personal study of Matthew’s Gospel in this year is to place a map next to our Bible. For it seems to me that Matthew reckons we are familiar with the geography of the Land. Because what Matthew does involves more than Google maps. Woven into the fabric of the Gospel’s narrative is his distinctive intention to teach us the Geography of the Spirit.
Now, a bit of a road trip. Our Gospel reading on the first Sunday of Epiphany gave us a sense of the Land, and a few other ideas. So let’s backtrack to Jesus’ geographical path in ch. 3. Jesus decided to leave his home, Nazareth in the Galilee, walking SoEast through the Decapolis and Perea into Judea. He enters the Jordan delta to meet up with the Baptizer’s kingdom renewal movement. Once there, he was baptized and then “spirited” into the Judean wilderness. Now our Epiphany 3 reading tells us Jesus, still in Judea, hears that the Baptizer has been arrested. So he decides to retrace his path back to the Galilee. He wades back through the Jordan river, the approximately 90 miles to his home, Nazareth. But he doesn’t stay there long, In a strategic decision, he leaves to reside in Capernaum – a harbor village on Lake Galilee, 30 miles to the NE. Now a 100 mile plus journey may not sound like much to us, who are accustomed to driving 70 miles an hour plus (may the Lord have mercy on us!), but in a day when nothing moved faster than you could walk,100 miles plus was quite a bit more than a stroll. Only after reading further into Mathew’s Gospel, will we discover that Jesus’ taking himself very far away from Judea, from Jerusalem and its temple was a spirit driven necessity. We will learn, also, that Matthew’s Jesus, although residing in Capernaum, is, nonetheless, a nomadic wanderer having embraced the Lord’s call. And there is in this- a detail I would like us to hold on to: before Jesus asks anyone to leave their home or family and follow him, he has already left his home and family in Nazareth.
Capernaum was one of a dozen back water fishing anchorages along the northwest lake shore. Magdala was the largest village but Capernaum had the largest harbor. Boats came and went regularly, plying their trade. While not on the main road, Roman roads still made it a trade center. In the Galilee during Herod Antipas’s reign the economic situation was largely one of heavy taxation due to his increased building projects. State control over commerce and fishing was imposed by tax collectors and toll rates. It is not without a good reason that the word “debt” keeps popping up in this Gospel.
But now Matthew inserts a snippet of an oracle from a prophetic heavyweight – Isaiah- moving us to consider that charting Jesus’ path involves more, much more than geography. The quote is a marker that geography has a theological dimension. These covenant-evoking names, Naphtali and Zebublun, frame the land as a divine gift yet this land is occupied by imperial powers- previously by Assyria but presently by Rome so much so that it has changed its name “Galilee of the Gentiles”. The hovering “shadow of death” that covers the land that engulfs both Jew and Gentile is not creation’s daily rhythm. This darkness is a human creation. Imagining light shining into that darkness images the Lord’s action to save Jew, Gentile and the Land. On the one hand, Matthew positions Jesus in Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry as someone who has become “God with us”by becoming a neighbor, On the other hand, Matthew positions Jesus as YHWH’s light, his saving presence, shining into that darkness. Matthew wants us to expand our perspective about mission so that when we come to the end of the gospel, Ch. 28, we are primed to hear Jesus’ voice not Isaiah’s, say “Go, Make disciples of all the nations”. Divine geography ripples out from Galilee into the farthest borders of the Roman Empire. Right from the start Jew and Gentile are co-recipients of salvation through Jesus.
Moved by John’s arrest, having settled in Capernaum, Jesus began preaching in Galilee the very message his predecessor preached in Judea. “Repent, for the kingdom has come near.” He has found his voice. Repent is a geographical word, an action word. It has the sense of turning around and going in a different direction. Repent means to do spring cleaning, to clear that path of debris and stuff so that there is a clear, straight path for the Lord to enter and direct my life. It has the sense of reversing the way I look at the world and carry myself in it. It draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside me. Jesus’ message also makes use of imperial language – kingdom/empire. The Biblical idea is YHWH is a great king who asserts authority over Israel and the nations. But as Matthew unpacks YHWH’s authority it will be redefined in scenes of healing, service, compassion, and dramatically, resurrection, that repair Imperial damage. It will be the kind of kingdom that empowers and restores, bringing individuals into community relationships. This Kingdom becomes the hope that the current kingdom of this world is not final.
“As Jesus was walking along the lakeshore…”, he tosses out “Come on. After me.”. He doesn’t pitch any ideas or persuade anyone. This One with a Davidic ancestry doesn’t ask questions about ancestry, education, abilities, even the availability for an extended time away from the job. He seems merely to look for what gets tangled up in a verbal net. And he catches two sets of brothers hard at work – fishing. On the surface, each has little reason to leave their current way of life. Each seemingly has a steady job and, more importantly, familial ties to their vocations.
Now I do most of my fishing at the Olde Ship pub in Fullerton so my understanding is limited to reading primary and secondary sources. Fishing was an important part of the Galilean economy. Sea-fairing communities ebb and flow to a rhythm of daily and seasonal life, developing a hard won body of navigational skills above and below the waterline. In short they live in a world very different from farmers and urban dwellers. Being a first century seaman was no day at the beach, so to speak. A fisherman’s life was a seasonal occupation, full of extremely hard work and long hours. Although there are a number of ways to fish in the ancient world, the overwhelming choice is netting. The two most common methods of net fishing involve either repeatedly tossing a net overboard and slowly rowing, hauling the net in, sometimes catching nothing to reward the effort or standing in the shallows and tossing out a weighted net hoping all the while to trap fish under it. It seems, however, that fishing had such a strong pull that while there may be other work during the off season fishing always pulled the fisherman back. On the one hand, then, from the background of fishing, we can understand why maybe the two sets of brothers willingly leave their nets when Jesus called. But on the other, from Matthew’s perspective, the two sets of brothers illustrate the seriousness of responding to Jesus’ call to change direction. Leaving their vocation and family illustrates obedience is not merely a suggestion.
“And I will send you out to fish for people” is a brilliant repurposing of a cultural image for a second life in ironic opposition to its original intention. The purpose of fishing is to capture and kill fish to use for food mostly. But in “Jesus fishing” people are “netted” in order to bring them into a renewed Israel, a believing community and give them life. “Change direction” was only half the equation. “Follow me” means do not expect to stay the same. The point is to create a sense of identity through adapting their skills to a new environment from land/sea to land/village. Their world is about to be turned right-side-up. Their vocation with its skills now comes under Jesus’ direction and guidance. Becoming a “fisher for people” is going to bring these Galilean seamen not only into relationship with Jesus, but into changed relationships with others. Simon Peter and Andrew highlight Jesus’ call to a new vocation. James and John highlight Jesus’ call takes priority over family commitments – a startling idea when family responsibility was rooted in oral tradition and Torah.These brothers were ordinary individuals called to an extraordinary task. They would not have completely understood what it meant to become fishers of people. Little did they realize how significant the change in direction would be from land/sea to the hustle/bustle of land/village. Yet they followed without hesitation. In the coming days they will often fail both to understand and to obey him. And little did they know that Jesus is about to bring another shipmate on board from Capernaum – a tax collector!
One of the most dangerous /anxiety producing things for me in reading/studying the Bible is that just when I think everything’s OK it turns and begins to read/study me! As those fishermen knew, a vocation takes time and work to develop. Today’s Gospel reading shows me, in a glimpse, that ministry is viewed through vocation. That ministry is developed out of vocational skills. In other words, ministry is found where I am found in my life. It seems to me that when I look back over my life – Jesus chose me not because I’m soooo skilled that he just can’t help but have me around. But in reflection because he saw potential in my vocational skills like he saw in some fishermen. And the question was the same: was I willing to change the direction of my life to follow him? Was I willing to become a small working model of the kingdom? And along that same line, little did I understand how difficult it would be to be consistently obedient to the stewardship of that change in direction. It seems to me there are a couple of takeaways from this reading for us. You and I have some acquired talents/skills over time but only when we change direction and follow Jesus will they be transformed into spiritual gifts. Gifts that will be effectively used in the community of faith. The very character of a vocation/ministry means that you and I are necessarily and continuously entangled in the netting of life with others. So the stewardship of our vocation/ministry with and for people is not a matter of catching but of gathering in. It’s a different mindset. It’s a different way of doing tasks. The stewardship of our vocation/ministry for and with Jesus means when we cast a net – It’s a different kind. It’s one that frees rather than captures. Our spirit gifted vocation is not easy. Sometimes there are heavy and painful burdens. Sometimes you just can’t find the fish. Sometimes you’re just exhausted.. As G.K. Chesterton observed “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried”.
Long ago, on the other side of the Atlantic, I was a shipmate on an Anglican boat. Now near the Pacific, I find myself in the shallows of St. Stephen’s Anglican. My desire is to bring my skills to this community to be transformed into spiritual gifts. To go fishing here by faith as the Lord makes possible. My prayer for each of us is that we “fish” together in serving this parish expressing an Anglican identity in ways that demonstrate to others that we are tangled up, netted with each other. And that we invite others to get tangled up, netted with us. What about you?
Now, my beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom. Amen