3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Readings: Isaiah 8:23‑9:3 1 Corinthians 1:10‑13,17 Matthew 4:12‑23
In today's Gospel Matthew presents the beginning of Jesus' public proclamation of the kingdom of heaven as the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of "a great light" arising for "a people living in darkness." As we hear the beginning of Jesus' preaching in Galilee, let us identify with the first apostles‑‑ Peter, Andrew, James, and John‑‑ by responding whole‑heartedly to the demands of God's kingdom with the refrain of the responsorial psalm: "The Lord is my light and my salvation" (Ps 27:1a).
The Isaiah reading is the opening section of a messianic oracle which describes the Lord's deliverance of Israel from the Assyrian armies. At first, the Lord had "degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali" by allowing Assyria under Tiglath‑pileser III to take captives and territory from those tribes, but now "he has glorified the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles" through a mighty deliverance of his people from the Assyria imperialists. The prophet goes on to praise the Lord for his victory. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;/ Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” The people of Israel rejoice "as at the harvest" or “when dividing spoils," because the Lord has smashed "the yoke that burdened them,/ the pole on their shoulder,/ and the rod of their taskmaster . . . as on the day of Midian" (cf. Judges 6-7).
In the second reading from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul is combating the problem of factionalism. The Corinthian community has divided into groups claiming allegiance to Paul, Apollos (another apostle from Alexandria in Egypt), Cephas (Peter), and Christ. For Paul such division is rooted in a misunderstanding of the gospel message. The Christian gospel is not the "wisdom" of a particular Christian preacher. In fact, by the standards of philosophical wisdom, the gospel is “folly” because its content is the cross, i.e., the message about Jesus, a crucified Messiah. Paul asks the Corinthians, who seem to be allied to the apostle who had baptized them, "Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He then reminds them of the difference between the worldly wisdom of philosophy and the power of the cross. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the
gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”
Matthew's account of the beginning of Jesus' preaching proclaims that a new age has dawned when the light of salvation is manifest to the whole world. John's arrest serves as a kind of signal for Jesus to begin his mission. After first withdrawing from the desert of Judea to Galilee, Jesus leaves his home town of Nazareth and takes up residence in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Despite the apparent obscurity of this place in contrast to the capital and temple city of Jerusalem, Matthew understands Jesus' Galilean ministry as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah's ancient prophecy. "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali/ the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, heathen Galilee:/ a people living in darkness has seen a great light./ On those who inhabit a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen."
Jesus' initial preaching is exactly the same as John's: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (cf. Matt 3:2). The term “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew's reverent paraphrase for "kingdom of God." It does not mean heaven in the sense of a disembodied afterlife with God, but rather it refers to the arrival of God's kingdom of justice and peace within this world, as will be evident in Jesus' preaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5‑7).
In contrast to John whose mission was limited to preaching repentance and baptizing in the desert of Judea (Matthew 3), Jesus begins a more public and universal mission by calling common fisherman to leave their nets and become “fishers of men” (see Jer 16:11). Eventually their mission will extend to all the nations (see Matt 28:16‑20). This universality is anticipated in Jesus' initial tour through the whole of Galilee which Matthew summarizes in the following way. “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” Our lives as Christian are to be a joyful extension of that universal healing mission.